June 29, 2003

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner?

There are times when I read the posts at the Invisible Adjunct and wonder if somehow, by mistake, I have wandered into a congregation of Calvinists who believe in total depravity. Only this time, it's the total depravity of the job seeker. No works can avail you in your quest for salvation; you are somehow predestined to the company of the elect or the damned, which in practice means that getting the elusive tenure-track job is purely a matter of luck. (Indeed, your own merit is nothing!) This seems to me to be not quite right. A better analogy would be to how research universities treat the quality of one's teaching during the tenure process: good teaching is a 'neutral,' but bad teaching can get one fired. That is, I'm not sure if there's anything one can do to get a tenure-track job, beyond presenting yourself properly, understanding the institution you're interviewing at, being polite, being articulate, and so forth. After that, it's in the invisible hand of the job market--and, since there are more qualified candidates than there are jobs, many good people will never get hired. But there are things you can do to prevent yourself getting hired, which range from being obnoxious to the search committee to being inarticulate about your work to not understanding the difference between a Research I and a comprehensive with a 4-4 load. My father has an awful lot of horror stories about candidates unwittingly destroying themselves at job interviews, and I know I certainly screwed myself up more than once.

-- Miriam of The Little Professor

And the above description seems to me to be not quite right.

There's always a first time for anything and everything, I suppose, and this is the first time I've been designated a Calvinist. I like to think this blog is ecumenical in purpose and latitudinarian in spirit, but of course it does have its leanings. Its leanings are those of a lapsed Catholic (who is not lapsed enough, it turns out, to not be a little bit surprised to see her blog described as a Calvinist congregation) and a scholar of Hume (and we know what Hume had to say about the Calvinists).

Seriously, Miriam, I don't believe there is a single post at this blog where I suggest that the academic hiring process is purely a matter of luck and not at all a matter of merit. But of course I could be wrong about this. I would therefore be grateful if you or anyone else could point to the offending post(s) so that I might correct the error (after making a full confession and receiving absolution for my sins).

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at June 29, 2003 06:40 PM

*shrug* Given the talent pool, I don't see how it's possible to consider academic employment a pure meritocracy (which to my mind is the proper obverse of the "luck" coin).

Why is it so problematic to think that luck gets people tenure-track jobs? That's true of lots of other jobs. Why is it important to believe differently about academia?

I'm serious here. Not blowing smoke.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at June 29, 2003 07:17 PM

Of course teaching is a meritocracy. As is football, tennis, chutes and ladders, checkers, tic tac to, horse racing, or shooting pool. Winners are crowned. I am a winner. Adjuncts are losers. Why inquire into it so closely? Maybe the better player won, maybe not. Tomorrow is a new day. Having been a pathetic failure in academics, try you hand at Sales, Ghostwriting, working at a lunch counter. The Winner never quits. The Winner fails and fails again until he or she succeeds. The only real loser is the one who gives up. Never blame others for your own failings. Never blame it on the system. Blame yourself.

With that in mind, I am looking for a few up and coming young understudies for Dick Minim. We are an equal opportunity employer. Men or Women of all genders are welcome to apply. When you come for the interview it is customary to dress up nicely; be clean and neat. Be humble and eager to please. On entering and leaving, observe the proper protocol -- kiss my boots! (Once a loser always a loser. Why not make a career of it?)

Posted by: Candidia Cruikshanks at June 29, 2003 09:52 PM

(*recovers from astonishment that IA actually read my blog, then curses parents' Earthlink connection for destroying comment, starts over*)

Actually, I believe very strongly that luck plays an enormous part in tenure-track hiring. By "neutrality," I mean this: given the wide range of search issues completely out of the job-seeker's control, what candidates often have to do is not second-guess their potential employers, but simply avoid giving them reasons not to hire them. I'm not talking petty Wilcox reasons (not listing professional organizations?!), but major blow-ups: my father's really, really long list of "self-destructive candidates" includes several who made themselves actively unpleasant; several more who had no understanding of what it meant to teach at a university with a 12-hr. load (see also Donald Hall in the CoHE); a number who delivered deadly dull or incoherent presentations, suggesting that they would be disasters in the classroom; those who couldn't answer basic questions about their work; some who made bizarre demands; etc. My own bad luck included two committees with weird politics and a possible dummy search; my own mistakes involved being unable to answer a really basic question at least twice (ack) and mixing up two schools (oops). Some Several of our senior candidates did equally unfortunate things, so it's not just an issue with junior faculty. It is very easy to mess oneself up, and since there is usually no feedback, it's not clear what has happened. And no, I'm not saying that candidate X didn't get a job because they screwed up; plenty of terrific people will not get a t-t job because there are, say, two hundred Victorianists on the market and only ten jobs. But yes, I am suggesting that luck doesn't necessarily explain everything.

For example. Even without my own screwups, I still would never have been hired my first year looking for work: I had no teaching experience to speak of (strike one) and, as was made clear to me later, not only was I much younger than most of the other candidates, but I also acted much younger (strike two). Nobody could even begin to see me functioning as an instructor. (And given my performance when I was adjuncting, they certainly had a point there; there's a downside to not being an exploited TA.) And then there were just the really silly job applications for positions I was only tangentially qualified for, or for positions at Christian colleges (I'm Jewish, and don't do too well when asked to describe my personal relationship to Christ).

Incidentally, I don't think Hogg's novel provides a good description of the sort of Calvinism I had in mind; Hogg is satirizing hyper-Calvinism, whereas I was thinking of something closer to moderate or evangelical Calvinism (total depravity, but more free will, and certainly not antinomian) :) I suspect my own "situational prejudices" (to borrow Chun's term) derive from being a second-generation academic, and having grown up listening to very detailed explanations of all the ways a candidate can botch an application/interview/campus visit. I tend, therefore, to see the process as considerably less random than many commenters here (although still involving considerable luck); to distrust self-perception (e.g., I knew I was inexperienced, but not that I didn't seem much more mature than my potential students); and to think that one cannot discuss candidates in isolation, but only in relation to the rest of the pool (e.g., candidate X may look scintillating in graduate school, may stand out in one pool, but may look like thirty other candidates in another).

Posted by: Miriam at June 29, 2003 11:01 PM


I don't know where you teach (a Cal State school?), but I think I remember you writing that your PhD is from Chicago. I'm guessing that the Cal State schools are 3/3, 3/4, or 4/4. Of the people who applied for that job, a good number of them were from state schools with possibly as many as twenty-five full courses under their belt.

How is it that a committee at a 4/4 school can look at a candidate from Chicago or Hopkins with basically no teaching experience and think that she's a better fit? I know from what you write that this wasn't your case specifically, and I'm sure you're a fine teacher; but choices like this are made all the time.

Somebody noted that candidates from elite institutions are discriminated against at some comprehensive and teaching institutions. In many cases, this is probably deserved for the same reason that a candidate from Yale might be expected to mesh better with the Harvard faculty than one from Missouri. From my limited opportunity to observe, however, I haven't seen it happen.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at June 30, 2003 01:19 AM

Chun: That was exactly my point. My father is in the CSU system (12 hours, either 4-4 or 3-3-3 with four-hour courses); I teach in one of the SUNY colleges (3-3). I have a personal research project going that involves looking at the requirements of English departments across the USA, and the thing that jumps out at me is that "producing employable Ph.Ds" and "prestige" don't seem to be the same thing; a number of not-at-all first rank programs do very well placing their students at smaller colleges (including religious colleges) or in local schools. (Graduates of Syracuse and NYU, for example, seem to do well in NY state, while my father tells me that the University of Minnesota used to have a lock on history positions at midwestern colleges.) I certainly figured out very quickly that my Ph.D. from Chicago was a major liability at many campuses--not because they were "scared" that I would leave, but because they were rightly scared that I wouldn't be able to teach anything. The second time I was job-searching, I could at least speak intelligently about the sorts of drastic mistakes I was making as an adjunct, so I think my department suspected that there was nowhere I could go but up :)

Posted by: Miriam at June 30, 2003 01:55 AM

As always, we're mixing the social and the personal. Even if the winners of a game of musical chairs are objectively the best players, the reason why everyone else lost is that there weren't enough chairs. Based on stuff posted on IA, the arbitrariness of the system comes from the fact that it's a buyer's market. Hiring committees can be as arbitrary and whimsical as they want to without sacrificing quality.

This should not be a contest between the winners and the losers to allocate blame, resentment, failure, jealousy, etc.

Posted by: zizka at June 30, 2003 02:38 AM

"(*recovers from astonishment that IA actually read my blog, then curses parents' Earthlink connection for destroying comment, starts over*)"

Miriam, it's all about linking: if you link to a blog, the blogger will find you :) If you want to know who is linking to you, go to http://www.technorati.com and enter your URL.

I confess I don't know enough about Calvinism to parse the distinctions between hyper and evangelical. I believe Hogg was satirizing a strain of Scottish Calvinism associated with the "popular party" (as distinct from "moderate" or New Light versions).

But you have not responded to the concern which prompted this entry: namely, my belief that you have misrepresented my position on academic hiring. As I see it, nowhere on this blog have I stated or implied that landing a tenure-track job is purely a matter of luck and not at all a matter of merit. Indeed, because I address these issues as an adjunct (and thus as someone whose perspective on these questions is suspect almost by definition), I take considerable pains to try and avoid the impression that I am simply a malcontent making outrageous and insupportable claims about the academy. I would therefore be grateful if you would specifiy which post or posts you had in mind when you characterized my position as Calvinistic.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 30, 2003 09:12 AM

IA, I was really responding more to the comments as opposed to your posts; that should have been better worded. (I referred to the congregation, after all, not the preacher.) Is one allowed to mention Works at all?

(Calvinists can be a surprisingly cheery bunch, by the way. Nothing malcontent about them.)

Posted by: Miriam at June 30, 2003 11:01 AM

I think Miriam is right inasmuch as the one thing in your control if you're seeking an academic job is fucking up. You can fuck up, and you can lose yourself a position that you were in contention for. How can you fuck up? With a really bad cover letter, with a badly done c.v., with references who don't send in their letters, with a bad screening interview, or with a bad job talk. All these things can happen, and they are in your control as a candidate.

The implication for meritocracy on the other side of the fence is the same as most commentators here would have it, however. If you don't fuck up, then getting chosen is a matter of luck or of unanticipated factors, which amounts to luck. So the merit of the hired-to-tenure-track faculty is mostly that they didn't make a bad mistake. It is not a positive merit (that they are better than everyone who did not get hired).

Posted by: Timothy Burke at June 30, 2003 12:57 PM

When I was in grad. school the dept. provided a kind of "how to" handbook on interviewing at the MLA, how to handle the campus interview, what to wear and what not to wear etc., etc. But the first page of the handbook was an epigraph from Spencer Tracy: "Learn your lines and try not to walk into the furniture."

Words to live by, I think.

Posted by: Chris at June 30, 2003 01:19 PM

A 'loser' (i.e. Ph.D. Program Drop-Out) speaks:

Forgive me for jumping in here, but having been directed to this debate by friends, I find this whole dialogue too enticing not to join it.

I'd like to direct your attention to an article -- published in the _Washington Post_ in July 2002 and available at the _Post_'s website for a fee -- that examines the 'adjunct debate' from the point of view of the faculty and staff of Georgetown University's English Department.[1]

Among those adjuncts interviewed for the article are folks who not only have Ph.D.s from top-ranked schools, but who also have books forthcoming from great academic presses, several articles published in top-ranked academic journals, etc. A case in point is the adjunct featured most prominently in the article: she's got a Ph.D. from Trinity College-Dublin, *two* books in press (one of which is based on her award-winning dissertation), and an excellent teaching record. She's also personable, charming, and quite knowledgeable about the type of track-record that hiring committees are seeking. Yet, she and her adjunct colleagues at Georgetown labor without benefits, job security, decent pay, office space for grading, etc. Moreover, they string together multiple such jobs in the D.C. area just to make ends meet, and flip burgers or wait tables during the summer term. And they constitute a small army: within Georgetown's English department, they outnumber the faculty by a comfy margin, and it is they who do most of the lecturing and seminar-leading.

So what are we to make of this? Well, like the Little Professor, I am also a faculty brat, and my mom -- who has done her share of time on hiring committees -- often speaks about how little both merit *and* the way in which one acquits oneself in an interview matters in hiring ... provided an applicant has what the faculty and department are seeking in other areas. A basic level of merit is, of course, required (a level that, as the description above indicates, the adjuncts at Georgetown’s English department meet or exceed). Beyond that, politics, department needs, and goodness only knows what else take over.

Moreover, I think that Mom would agree that the only thing more ludicrous than the notion that a significant portion of the U.S.'s Grand Army of Adjuncts earned their fate by shooting themselves in the foot in their job interviews, job talks, or campus visits is the corollary: the idea that being obnoxious and/or clueless in job interviews necessarily takes one out of the running for an academic job. I don’t doubt that this is your dad’s experience, LP, but that doesn’t mean that this is how all -- or even most -- academic hiring committees do business. And, given the comportment of most of us scholarly types, could they afford to? Think about it: is there *any* professional group -- aside from computer programmers and bomb squad technicians -- with a *greater* number of personality tics and *less* poise than academics?
Let’s face it, professors are not generally known for their social skills – and, to hear my mother tell it, they are very much inclined to overlook an applicant's lack of same in job interviews. My former advisor would agree: I once overheard him and two other senior faculty members at Harvard chuckling over a Bright Young Thing they'd just interviewed for a tenure-track post. The applicant had picked his nose throughout the interview, worn a stained shirt, and showed signs that he obviously hadn't bothered to bring himself up to speed with regard to Harvard's unusual calendar and the challenges it presents to junior faculty members -- but he was a good scholar from a good uni with a powerful advisor. Thus, he was hired, despite his interview gaucherie. Go figure.

Look, my bitterness about my own grad school experience doesn't extend to academic hiring, as I went into my Ph.D. program planning to do things other than teach, and thus had no contact with the job market. Because of this, you can rest assured I'm not grinding an axe here, but am merely speaking truth to power based upon statistics, press coverage, and the job-market experiences of friends. Little Professor, the academic job market sucks, period, and the people who are suffering as a result are not less capable, less accomplished, or less-well-trained than you are. In fact, if the aforementioned _Post_ article is any indication -- to say nothing of similar articles that have run in recent years in _The New York Times_, _Salon_, and the now-defunct _Lingua Franca_, to name a few -- many of the unlucky souls who are currently doing time as adjunct stoop-laborers are actually *more* accomplished than you are. The plain fact of the matter is that the academic job market is such that *good* people, with *great* publication records and *excellent* training that they’ve received from *famed* advisors at *top* schools, are not getting jobs -- regardless of how well they interview. Fucked-up and unfair? Oh, yes. But true? Definitely.

For years, I've seen graduate students in humanities and social sciences deny the import of the growing number of Ph.D. adjuncts, but the Little Professor's take is a new one: asserting that adjuncts and others who find themselves without tenure-track jobs are necessarily inferior scholars, or troglodytes who don’t interview well. The system isn’t well and truly broken? Most Ph.D. adjuncts have created their fate through their own inferiority? Baloney.

"Carine" (who really is a nice person when you get to know her)

[1] You might also want to check out the discussion that we had about the article last summer at PhinisheD: it is archived here http://www.phinished.org/arc/arc18/phinarc.cgi?read=57626. Strangely enough, the discussion evolved following my post about a rosy job-market prognosis I'd heard at a party the previous weekend -- a prognosis given to me by an old college classmate whom it turned out was one of the happy *tenure-track* academics interviewed for the _Post_ article! It's a small, weird world.

Posted by: "Carine Bichet" at June 30, 2003 01:20 PM

everybody should go check out
"carrine"s page right now. brava!

Posted by: vlorbik at June 30, 2003 01:34 PM

*jaw drops*

Carine, what a great site! Why have I never seen it before?

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at June 30, 2003 01:36 PM

*Wide Eyed*

What a site! Wowza!

Carine, will you marry me? Please? It'll be swell, I promise! I'll make brunch. Gryere (sp?) and Smoked Salmon Omlettes with slices of fresh apple every Sunday (Miriam, mouth watering?)

Posted by: Chris at June 30, 2003 01:44 PM

adding site to blog list...

Posted by: Rana at June 30, 2003 02:17 PM

I've posted a mini-review on my site, if anyone's interested.

Posted by: Rana at June 30, 2003 03:03 PM

Can I gently point out that I do not believe that being unable to get a tenure-track job means that you are unworthy? And that I do not believe everything is hunky-dory in the world of academia? And that I do not believe that academia is a meritocracy? And that I do not believe that adjuncts are treated properly? (I also don't believe that Harvard is typical of anything in particular, which is a pet peeve of mine: Research Is and Research IIs cannot be used as models for normative experience.) IA doesn't like being accused of being a Calvinist; I'd rather not be accused of being more gung-ho for the status quo than I am. But, as Timothy Burke says, I do in fact believe that you can f*** yourself up pretty badly, having done it myself and having witnessed other people do so.

Posted by: Miriam at June 30, 2003 04:25 PM

Miriam! Have you lost all restraint? You said ... *gasp* ... the "F" word!!! Heavens to Betsy.

You get down, girl, get funky, and dance your bad self silly!

Posted by: Chris - Who is Grooving to James Brown as He Writes at June 30, 2003 04:55 PM

I too, have f****d myself up pretty badly during an interview; this happened to me a couple of years ago (while still ABD). I *twice* responded to a question about English Restoration drama with an answer about drama from an entirely different period (Jacobean, if memory serves). It was only after walking away from the interview that I realized what I had done. Nervousness? Yes, that was certainly a problem that day (the instant-on perfomative nature of Hotel-room conference interviews is something that does not get enough critical scrutiny as far as I am concerned--the whole phenomenon reminds me of nothing so much as being set up on a hellishly bad blind date...). Did I know the "right" answer to the question? Yes. I just plain blanked out. I can only imagine the remarks after I left *that* particular room.

I don't think that anecdote means I am unworthy (I’m not), or that the system doesn't desperately need an enema (a piping hot one, methinks), but I have managed to sabotage myself at least once. I still wonder, however, whether (absent any ridiculous missteps such as the one above) the “performance” means much at all. To return to the Calvinist metaphor, what is the role of “predestination” here? How many searches are, in essence, so weighted to one candidate (even at the long shortlist stage), that the other candidates are more or less out of the running from the beginning?

Posted by: Michael at June 30, 2003 05:19 PM

Actually, Michael, I think that's every candidate's nightmare (this search is fixed! It's going to go to the inside candidate/blue chip jerk with a powerful advisor/friend of the department chair) and I think it happens not terribly often. Whether it is worse or better that things turn out more capriciously--and that sometimes departments agree on the mediocrity to avoid either one of two stellar candidates who might favor a particular faction of the department--I don't know. But I don't think that searches are often predestined, and more often somewhat random.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at June 30, 2003 07:21 PM

Chris: I'll have you know that I'm an excellent dancer, thanks ;) (Y'know, I really wasn't objecting to you using that word.)

Posted by: Miriam at June 30, 2003 08:09 PM

As a point of comparison illustrating a stark contrast in job markets and job prospects: my husband (who left grad school for law school) once turned up for an interview at a law firm on the wrong day. Admittedly, he was a day early rather than a day late, but still, a little bit goofy, no? They offered him the job.

Re: the social skills of academics. I've often heard it said that, given the parity in qualifications and etc, what they're looking for is someone they want to have lunch with. This is meant to be reassuring, but can actually have the effect of being hurtful: So I guess nobody wants to have lunch with me? (which cuts at another level than, They don't like my work, or whatever). And if this lunch thing is true, then I am truly puzzled. Since we all have our faults and flaws, there are of course some things wrong with me. But there's nothing, uh, "wrong" with me. I can pass for a civilian. Yes, I'm an introvert, but then, so are many academics. And I do make an effort, and I don't believe my social skills fall short of the standard in academia.
It is a mystery -- but Miriam, I mean that in a Catholic sense :)

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 30, 2003 08:09 PM

Zizka (in brief) and Carine (in extenso) have pretty much covered the bases (and I join in the gratitude for Carine's having dropped by), but I have to add my two cents.

The game is rigged. It's like the failed sperm trying to figure out why the ovum rejected them ("Did I not wriggle fetchingly enough? Could I have put on more speed at the starting gate?"). Concentrating on things like interview smarts may make sense for a particular person trying to get a particular job, but the whole issue is really irrelevant to the conversation here, which is about the systematic perversion of the market. If there are too many grad students and not enough jobs, good people are going to get screwed no matter how they polish their social graces. That's what's at issue here; "what color is your interview suit" is a distraction.

Posted by: language hat at June 30, 2003 10:18 PM

"It's like the failed sperm trying to figure out why the ovum rejected them ('Did I not wriggle fetchingly enough? Could I have put on more speed at the starting gate?')."

First I'm a Calvinist, now I'm a failed sperm? :)
That's an unusual, but I think an apt, analogy. Though I agree with Timothy Burke that in any given interview, a given candidate can mess up, I don't think this gets us too far precisely because of the oversupply of candidates relative to jobs.

I also appreciate Carine's dropping by to make such an eloquent and powerful comment.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 30, 2003 10:55 PM

Thanks so much for the warm welcome, everyone! Miriam, I apologize if my tone was harsh or snarky, or if I misrepresented your views in any way. Rana, thanks for the review. (What’s your blog’s URL, BTW?). Dorothea, I really like *your* site about grad school; I stumbled upon it last spring and dropped you a quick e-mail after my visit. Invisible Adjunct, folks on both sides of the Atlantic sing the praises of this website; thanks for creating it! (The more people speak out about the adjunct situation, the better, IMHO.) Chris, I’m an omelette fanatic: double the portions and perhaps Miriam and I can bury the hatchet and share! vlorbik, Michael, and Timothy, thanks again for the feedback! And language hat, Beavis and Butthead said it best: “Huh. Huh-huh. You said ‘sperm’.” Great analogy!

Double thanks, to vlorbik and all of you, for the equally warm words about the ‘Phoenix Rising’ website. Tom Jankowski – the godlike Webmaster over at PhinisheD -- was kind enough to give me space on his server for the site last year, but I've done little to promote and register it, as I moved from the U.S. to the U.K. last summer and things have been nuts since. (Why the move? More grad school, of course. As my older sister, a bartender who is by far the smartest member of my family, put it when she heard the news, "Some people never fucking learn. They’ve got anti-depressants over there, right?”) Tom's been extremely patient with me while I’ve dragged my feet about developing the site further, but your kind enthusiasm really spurs me to get off my duff and begin tending to the thing in earnest! Toward that end, I’d be extremely grateful if you could continue to spread the word about the site -- particularly among folks who, like me, have been burned by the Academy’s flames and who might thus be willing to share essays, reflections, or whatever.[1] Thanks so much!

Thanks Again & All Best,
: ) “Carine”

[1] In my opinion, it’s awful that folks who leave Ph.D. programs have *no* narratives from which to draw strength and inspiration, but instead have to grope around feeling like they’re alone. But at the same time, I know from my own experience that one doesn’t exactly want to shout about one’s experience from the rooftops, either -- especially not in the immediate aftermath. (Unfortunately, the ‘immediate aftermath’ can last for years!) It’s a crappy cycle: those of us who leave don’t talk about it, so that others who leave later feel as I’ve they’ve got no resources, as if no one ‘gets it.’ At least, that’s how I felt when I finally fled screaming in 2000. Sitting around in my apartment in my bathrobe for six days, eating take-out and playing computer Tetris when I wasn’t simply staring at the wall, I kept thinking of that shopworn but accurate statistic that 50% of all U.S. doctoral students don’t finish the degree. (“Where in the hell are these people, and why aren’t they talking?” I kept wondering. “Do people who drop out simply disappear into puffs of smoke the second that they walk off of campus, like vampires who’ve stepped into sunlight? I don’t get it.”)

Posted by: "Carine Bichet" at July 1, 2003 11:56 AM

Hatchet buried, Carine, and I must say that your site is a terrific idea.

Posted by: Miriam at July 2, 2003 05:57 PM

My URL is http://frogsandravens.blogspot.com. I'm glad you liked the review.

Posted by: Rana at July 5, 2003 04:57 PM