05 December 2006

All About Academia

As the annual Modern Language Association conference approaches (Philadelphia freedom indeed!), along with conference interviews and requests for additional materials and even in some cases campus visits, conversation among some of us in the egghead blogosphere has turned, like an annual pilgrimage, to the holy grail of faculty conversation: the demands of successfully negotiating the academic job market. I have written before on aspects of the market, which I invite you to read again, but partially in response to the return of the repressed that is the job market, as well as serving as a love letter to fellow blogger Margo, Darling, I have composed a series of observations on the job market and the Biz arranged around aphoristic quotations from the classic film All About Eve. Like the backstabbers and glamourpuss stars of the film, academics compete on a small (and ever shrinking) stage, where it may appear that to survive, one must become like Eve— lying, cheating, and stealing her way to success. While it is true that this is one proven way to success in our profession, I trust my gentle readers to agree with me in my belief that for most of us, such methodologies are not only distasteful but also quite frankly beyond our talents. So this is a primer for the rest of us, those who mean to survive and thrive in the Biz, but don't wish to give up their humanity to do so.

Like any useful series of aphorisms (Wilde and Nietzsche come to mind), they bear memorisation, repetition, and sharing. Chant them before you leave your hotel room. Think of them as you wait, outside the interview suite in the beige hallway, as the interview committee runs farther behind their schedule. Have them behind your eyes as you watch as previous Candidate X leaves said hotel suite and passes you by in same hallway, giving you a wan and wary half-smile. Read and re-read them instead of working on your presentation as you “fly” to your “back.” And relish them whether you receive the “good” or “bad” news. For they reflect who we are, eggheads of academia, warts and all (and all).

Ready, children? Let’s begin…

"If nothing else, there's applause... like waves of love pouring over the footlights."
Since in reality every professor and academic is a born star or star-in-waiting (or in-vain, for that matter), we have, to a certain extent, a market which matches our ambitions: brutal, unfair, facile, imbecile, glaring footlights, trend, cachet, good or bad press. However, we often make the mistake of confusing success (landing the job, for example) with true accomplishment.

"Bill's thirty-two. He looks thirty-two. He looked it five years ago, he'll look it twenty years from now. I hate men!"
Looks, looks, looks! Do they matter? Why, yes, of course they do. Sure, follow the MLA’s little red book for advice on how to de-racialise and neuter yourself. A professional countenance is important: neat hair, clean teeth, boring clothes. But don’t worry! The committee will still be able to see (and act, however unconsciously) beyond your camouflage to the real you, especially if that real you is racialised or gendered or sexualised.

"I'm Addison DeWitt. I'm nobody's fool, least of all yours."
Don’t mistake the interviewing process for substance. It is Kabuki theatre, a sort of performance of masked perfection on both sides of the table. That doesn’t mean it’s completely empty, just to say that you, the candidate, and them, the job, are not what they might appear to be.

Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night!
Looking for a job in academe, or for that matter being on a search committee, is brutal work. It is not easy, it doesn’t necessarily get easier, and cannot be "aced." Drama Ahead!

"Everybody has a heart - except some people."
Keep in mind this goes double for academics.

"I detest cheap sentiment."
While it may be true that there exists some basic humanity in the interviewing process, don’t expect it. Steel thyself for unprofessionalism, unreturned inquiries, dead-drop photocopied letters months after you sent in the application, and committee chairs forgetting to tell you they gave the job to the other schmuck, three months ago.

"Too bad, we're gonna miss the third act. They're gonna play it offstage."
Will you ever know why you didn’t get a job? In short, no. Even with a local interlocutor willing to spill the details, you will never achieve the omniscience of vision that we as intellectuals crave and desire like Britney needs panties. Was it your presentation? Your cheap Men’s Wearhouse suit? The wrong colour lipstick? In 98% of cases, it is really not about you. The other 2% I can't vouch for.

"Shucks, and I sent my autograph book to the cleaner."
Beef up on the credentials and attributes of both committee members and schools. It makes you look better, and makes them feel like they’re really something rather than the boring deadwood at Lackluster U that they truly are. Also, it makes the whole thing feel less mercenary, less 'you need a job and they got one, punto final' (even if that is in fact the reason why the market is the way the market is).

"I will regard this great honor not so much as an award for what I have achieved, but a standard to hold against what I have yet to accomplish."
Getting a job is only the first step. A large one, a hurdle, but once you’re in, the real work (and hazing) begins. Don't think you can relax. Lions and Tigers and Bears (Oh My!) are around every corner. So keep flexing those muscles, doing your Pilates, and going to Curves, cause you will need those muscles to run like hell.

"The cynicism you refer to, I acquired the day I discovered I was different from little boys!"
Do gender and race really matter in our enlightened world? Yes.

"I'd marry you if it turned out you had no blood at all."
More than half the time, committees make bad choices. Don’t be envious, but rather be satisfied that 75% of the time the committee has hired someone who loathes or will come to the loath the job, school, and his or her new colleagues, which is only good news, right? It means you can reapply for the job in a year or two! Lucky you!

"That I should want you at all suddenly strikes me as the height of improbability... you're an improbable person, Eve, but so am I. We have that in common. Also a contempt for humanity, an inability to love or be loved, insatiable ambition - and talent. We deserve each other."
Sometimes however, matches are indeed made in Heaven.

"The bed looks like a dead animal act."
Will the committee see your uniqueness, your brilliance, your fabulousness? Usually not. Most committees are looking for a paragon, a paradigm, a saviour. No real person can live up to those expectations, although we can and do approximate mimesis. Just make sure you’re the right colour for the particular forest you fly into, little moth-butterfly, or you’re owl bait! As candidates pass through hotel rooms and past lecterns, it becomes less of a question for the committee of the ideal candidate than the one that everyone can stand (barely).

"Lovely speech, Eve. But I wouldn't worry so much about your heart. You can always put that award where your heart ought to be."
As so many of us do. Recognition is nice, but don’t be fooled into thinking it has meritocratic meaning. The profession is full of talented and gifted scholars and teachers who have never won any award or fellowship, usually because they’re too busy working their job rather than working their connections.

"I shall never understand the weird process by which a body with a voice suddenly fancies itself as a mind. Just when exactly does an actress decide they're HER words she's speaking and HER thoughts she's expressing?"
Do committees and schools really want someone who’s brilliant, innovative, revolutionary in approach, intellectually gifted, mesmerising in their capacity for knowledge, growth, and collegiality? No. Usually they want someone to teach the masterpiece courses everyone loathes and keep their mouth shut.

"Usually at the point where she has to rewrite and rethink them, to keep the audience from leaving the theatre!"
Keep in mind that in the academy, talent is never a replacement for toeing the line, and no good deed (excellent teaching, immaculate service, strong publication records, etc.) goes unpunished.

"So many people know me. I wish I did. I wish someone would tell me about me."
Rejection hurts, and acceptance is thrilling, but never mistake those conditions for any real reflection on yourself. Keep your eye on your alimony, and your independence.

"Don't cry. Just score it as an incomplete forward pass."
Practice makes perfect. But let’s not get crazy. After three seasons on the market, one should probably consider the more lucrative options in corporate or non-profit sectors. Is this a personal failure? Not necessarily, given how capricious and strange academics and the market are, getting or not getting a job is so outside of any rational sensibility that conclusions are hard to draw.

"You are in a beehive, pal. Didn't you know? We are all busy little bees, full of stings, making honey day and night. Aren't we honey?"
Working conditions are widely disparate across the profession (R1, R2, SLAC, CC, etc), but R1s, while the putative cream of the crop, can actually be soul-killing places to work. Keep your options open, consider going to No Name U versus Barracuda U, and think about your quality of life. And be smart enough to recognise the differences in formal rules when applying to different institutional levels.

"The atmosphere is very MacBeth-ish... what has, or is about to, happen?"
That feeling of doom you feel? Don’t worry, it comes with the territory. Problem is it doesn't really go away once you've landed the job.

"Wherever there's magic and make-believe and an audience, there's theatre."
So work it girl! This is your moment to shine. So shine already.

"Not mouse, never mouse. If anything *rat*!"
Inside candidates? Fake searches? Nepotism? Sure. Can you do anything about it? No (other than tell your tales on a pseudonymous blog or wiki).

"We're a breed apart. We're the original displaced persons."
Keep in mind we are freaks, we eggheads and academics. So be your freaky, wonderful self, and if it is meant to be, it will happen. Is this Chaos Theory? New Age positive thinking? Futility passing as muster? Sure, maybe. But what is the alternative? The market is insane, irrational, subjective, and ultimately full of shit. All you can do is your best: send a considered letter, practice your talk before friends, make sure your teeth are brushed, don’t drink alcohol at your interview meals, and don’t be a nut job, and you’ve done your part, in my book. The final rule to remember is: If you didn’t get the job, then it sucked anyways. So, fuck ‘em!

Good luck to all my fellow soldiers!


Flavia said...

My first thought, as I saw the top image come up, was, in fact, "Ooh, Margo's gonna love this!"

And indeed, we should all strive to be more like Margo--both Channing and Darling. (Though happily, at this particular MLA, I'll be more like Marilyn there on the stairs, watching the drama unfold but staying decidedly OUT of it. Ditzy obliviousness isn't always such a bad thing!)

Hilaire said...

This is hugely helpful to read the day before I fly 3000 miles away for an interview...it has a perceptible effect on my consciousness! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

literate1 said...

You're fabulous, and this is hilarious! Though I'm not on the market this year, I'm sure this will come in quite handy in the future for me. Until then, I'm circulating this to all my disgruntled colleagues and wide-eyed grad students. Sage wisdom, gurl!

Horace said...

So, so cynical. And so, so true.

My best advice for MLA is...Drink, copiously. It's the only way.

danny said...

Real science, dropped with the élan we've come to expect :). And in my experience it rings true outside the academic sector as well. Thanks so much!

Professor Zero said...

What is so mysterious about it all is that, while it is hard to get a job, it is also hard to hire. What most search committees I've been on are really thinking the whole time is, "Will we be able to attract anyone? Hold their interest beyond the first date?"

Kabuki theatre + lottery, on all sides. It is really weird!

Professor Zero said...

p.s. That picture is so perfect!

Margaret said...

Wonderful, wonderful post. You've captured it exactly. This should be required reading pre-conference interview in any discipline!!

Joanna said...

Hilarious and true!

Dr. Lisa said...

I love that movie. Good luck!

GayProf said...

That pretty much sums it up. Sometimes I wonder what I would do if I got tenure. My life would have so little drama and intrigue.

Anonymous said...

Isn't the phrase "toe the line"?

Oso Raro said...

Indeed, it is. Thanks for the tip. Here is a fascinating discussion of homonym confusion in English online:


Of course, perhaps for teachers, professors, and those lay people perhaps overly concerned with grammatical details, the most intriguing question is: Does it matter? As an editor in the link points out, "Whether such mistakes will, in time, spill over into more formal types of writing is yet to be seen. The question is: does it matter if, in a generation's time, people are writing about 'pouring over magazines' or 'towing the line'?"

Personally, my pet peeve is the apostrophe, such a useful tool, yet so absent from student writing. Why oh why can people not remember how to use the apostrophe? Perhaps for the same reasons I sometimes have to review the rules on its use (or did went I went onto higher levels of education): poor grammatical training and a move away from rote memorisation in elementary education, the dominance of informal or spoken styles in English influenced by multiple inflections from the family of Englishes around the globe, and the fact that our langue maternelle is confusing, disorgnised, and conflicted in basic and essential ways. Ask a hispanoparlante or francophone if you don't believe me.

I remember reading somewhere that some linguists guess that the apostrophe, my friend, will die a slow and natural death, simply because people don't know how to use it anymore. And what emerges *out* of the mistakes? New mythologies that legitimise them, oddly enough. See here:


and here:


English is so fluid, such a brazen hussy of a language, that it can be hard to get a grip on it. And who would want a language any other way? I wonder, however, where we as teachers and intellectuals, draw the line (all puns intended). Current usage? Traditional rules? Or the bold future?

IMHO u ll know it when u c it LOL :-)

Anonymous said...

BTW, I'm not an academic.
Merely a massotherapist expat...

Professor Zero said...

If they ask a really difficult question, just sing
Se vuol ballare
- with the attitude you see in the video. Note the words: 'If you want to dance - I'll play the guitar. If you want to come to my school, I'll teach you the steps. I'll discover your plans and frustrate them using all my astuteness' ... etc. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Singing 'Se vuol ballare' is great. Unless of course they know Figaro and think you're being subversive, anti-establishment and mocking them behind their backs, like Figaro is doing to his little Count.

Not to toe the line too emphatically or anything, but the other misused (though not misspelled) idiom that annoys me is "this begs the question," usually followed by a question. Though I've never actually heard or seen an English professor misuse this phrase, thank goodness. Perhaps we're still busy enough marking it on student papers that we still know what it really means.

cindy said...

I'm glad I already made the decision to stay away from going through that kind of job search, and this post made me more thankful that I don't want to be a professor.

Professor Zero said...

Anon. 6:25 - that's the point, hope they do know Figaro, put them on notice that you're taking charge !!!

Earnest English said...

Rock on! Wish I'd thought of it before MLA, but excellent post. I love All About Eve.