12 February 2006

The Voluptuous Horror of the Academic Job Market (Part One): The Beauty Secrets of Searching

¡Meet the Job Candidates!
What Now? had an interesting disciplinary query last week, which provided for LOTS of thinking regarding these issues, but also got me meditating on academic job searches, and the craziness of the profession that is revealed in the search process. Here is where the mask slips off and you can see the ugly, ugly face of academia. For me especially, the past couple of years have been vertiginous in their contrasts. Last year, I was on the market, submitting 70 dossiers for consideration (What can I say? I needed a job!). I got a decent showing: 10 telephone interviews, 5 flybacks, and 2 offers. Thusly, I ended up in Cold City, which was not my first choice, for a lot of personal reasons more than professional, although those professional reasons/concerns/doubts have caught up to the personal but quick. And one of the modes of this catch-up has been being on search committees this year both for my department and other units.

The feeling is like passing through the looking-glass. On one side, you as the candidate, grinning madly, uncomfortable in a monkey suit, yes-ing and of-course-ing to every little ridiculous thing. "Teaching? Service? Research? Yuppers! Yea! Totally! Of Course! Whatever you want!" Good grief. But candidates only see the facade of the process, with glimmers of the problems behind the curtain (a late, strange letter; a good interview that goes nowhere; hear-say and gossip).

To wit, after an MLA interview with an American/Ethnic Studies program at a Big 10 school in 2000, apparently I fell out of consideration because my shoes were "too NYU" and my scarf was "flamboyant," according to a well-placed source. FYI, it was winter, of course, and I removed the scarf along with my coat at the door. The shoes, well, maybe to str8 eyes they were "NYU" (whatever that is), but to me they seemed pretty plain: black, polished, no bells or whistles. The only lesson one can glean from this particularly petty lesson is they forgot to put "Faggots Need Not Apply" on the bottom of the ad. You'd think especially in area studies, folks would think before they openly expressed their antediluvian visions of collegiality and fit. Girls, word GETS around, trust me.

Of course anyone with extensive interviewing histories, which would therefore include most post-doctorate people and not a few ABDers, can regale you with horror stories of interviews gone awry: interviewers falling asleep, committees arguing in front of the candidate, the blow-offs, false-starts, and unfollowed promises. Not too mention the casual racism and sexism that can pervade such encounters (which only get worse after you GET the job, hello!).

At the 2004 MLA, I interviewed with a prominent if underfunded public university in one of the boroughs of New York City, which ended up focusing on how I would control their vicious Dominican students. Now, of course, they didn't come out and just say that: "Hey, g├╝ero, how are you gonna handle our vicious Dominicans, who will just tear you a new asshole?" But it didn't take much to see that these older white professors (and a younger one in their mold, natch) were highly, um, conscious of the demographic changes at their university, and quite frankly wanted someone to handle these students for them. So in this moment you have all sorts of mess going on: racism, colorism, potential GLBT issues, as well as plain old unpleasant revelation of fear and intolerance. Needless to say, I didn't land a flyback when I continued to express incredulity at how I handle "classroom conflict." Let's face it, I couldn't imagine being afraid of my Dominican students the same way these Anglos apparently were. Oh well, the pay scale was miserable anyhow!

Fly-back land wasn't much better, in the end, especially if you aren't the one, whether by design or comparison. Last winter, I had a glorious flyback to yet another Big 10 university, in Gender Studies. I was wined, I was dined, I was coquettishly seduced to ignore the fact that the University was in the middle of nowhere. For whatever reason, it didn't work out, but insult to injury is almost a truism in the rat race that is the academic marketplace. A finalist, I waited two months before I finally sent the chair an email to inquire about the (obviously not mine) job. The chair responded promptly confirming what I already knew: I didn't have the job. Thanks for nothing. THEN, a week later, a form letter arrived saying, "Thanks, but no thanks." Again, standard issue. But here is the catch: it was the wrong form letter! Addressed to those candidates that had failed to make the first cut, I was both amused and pissed. Here I am thinking, OK, you have 4 to 6 candidates, and you or your assistant don't have time to write personal rejection letters? And, of course, they ended up hiring a white person in a supposed diversity position. There's little surprise there. Don't even get me started on the diversity thing and universities. Contra to the widespread misapprehension, race typically counts against you in so many intangible (and therefore non-litigious) ways. In any event, the whole episode left me feeling a bit abused, especially when I found out their hire was complete (i.e. contract and negotiations completed) the week after my interview. Were they ever going to tell me I didn't get the job, or did they just think I would "figure it out"? The bottom line of this story is the ugly face of the unprofessionalism that the dog-eat-dog job market breeds. As a side note, professionalism offers us a way to handle potentially awkward encounters in the work place (e.g. "You didn't get the job."). When that goes out the window, all you have left, really, is punition, sadism, and exploitation.

The final little lesson I wish to impart here has to do with my other offer. So, here I had survived months of letter writing, the endless and thankless photocopying and running to the post, phone interviewing, schlepping out for campus visits (some over two days, with presentations, interviews, working breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and teaching demonstrations) to arrive at the weighing of two offers. My first choice, small town/potatoes state school, relatively close to my Gordo in Big Eastern City, was exciting. I was ready. Gimme a pen! Hold up, wait a minute. Ooops! I guess someone forgot to tell the Provost they should have been enthusiastic too. Negotiations broke down when the P. wouldn't budge an inch over salary, benefits, or job security. An intial one-year contract was offered, with renewal based on "we wanna see how you do." Um, something more empirical would be nice. This, children, is known as a scam, and very quickly things ended (without a promised travel reimbursement I might add). From the tension of our phone negotiations and the rigidity of the Provost's "offer," it was clear to me that the Provost was less than convinced of a) yours truly as the candidate, and more importantly b) the position itself (indeed, in the end they ended up tanking the search after my departure, to "figure it out."). If you need a more prominent signal to run for your life, you shouldn't be in this profession. Pack it up now and open a hot dog stand in Finland, cause dollface, you will be eaten ALIVE! And run is exactly what I did: strappy high-heeled sandals don't fail me now. I haven't always thought this, but I've learned my lessons well.

So, here I am in Cold City, far from my Gordo but doing OK. Now, I count myself as lucky to have had two offers. If I didn't have the Cold City offer in my hand, would I have taken Job B, even with Angry Provost gunning for me? Sure, of course; I'm not stupid. After all, every girl needs healthcare. It's also unfortunate but generally true that if you wander off the path of the tenure-track for long (like, a milli-second), you are damaged goods. But I would have been on the market the moment I was there. Which I suppose is another thing I've learned: Keep Your Eye On Your Alimony, baby! Make yourself more valuable to the institution than the institution is to you, because in the end, they (the university, your department, whatever) couldn't give a shit, and will use and abuse you, then discard you like the first wife (more on this metaphor later).

So, here I am, wig askew, dress torn, lipstick smeared, mascara running, but honeys, I have survived to live another day, and fight another battle. However, if I had to venture some dictums from being on the market, they might look like this:

1. Be Professional, even when others are not (and they won't be, oh boy!)
2. You'll Never Really Know the Story (unless you have an inside contact)
3. It's Rarely about You (Really! So STOP the introspective bellyaching)
4. People are fuckers: racist, sexist, and homophobic. Be prepared!
5. Keep on Movin' (see rule #3)
6. Never Let It Show on Your Face (see rule #1)

Some of these rules have been reinforced by my experience on the other side of the interview table, which I'll get to in my next post. I hear an IKEA bookcase calling my name right now...


Anonymous said...

Great entry! I'd like to add a dictum to your list, though:
- Don't forget you are playing a role. Don't believe a word you are saying or hearing.


Oso Raro said...

So true! The performative nature of the interview process is also key to a lot of the bullshit that happens from beginning to end.