Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Undertheorized

Louis Menand has an essay on Paul de Man, occasioned by the new de Man biography, in the March 24th issue of The New Yorker. It's a juicy overview of de Man's career that manages to disentangle the unsavory life from the literary and theoretical movements in which de Man participated; it's also a useful corrective to the dismissive and eye-rolling ways "literary theory" gets caricatured by journalists and nonspecialists.

Here are the article's first two paragraphs:

The idea that there is literature, and then there is something that professors do with literature called "theory," is a little strange. To think about literature is to think theoretically. If you believe that literature is different from other kinds of writing. . . if you have ideas about what's relevant and what isn't for understanding it. . . and you have standards for judging whether it's great or not so great ([e.g.] a pleasing style or a displeasing politics), then you have a theory of literature. You can't make much sense of it without one.

It's the job of people in literature departments to think about these questions, to debate them, and to disseminate their views. This is not arid academicism. . . . [It's] part of an inquiry into the role of art in human life, the effort to figure out why we make this stuff, what it means, and why we care so much about it. If this is not the most important thing in the world to understand, it is certainly not the least.

I've blogged about this before, but my own training in literary theory was pretty close to nonexistent. I did not take a theory course in college or grad school, and though I was assigned a small amount of theory among the secondary readings in a few of my graduate seminars, we barely discussed them. Theorists must have come up in class discussion from time to time, but no one held forth about Butler this or Foucault that. I had the nagging sense that I should know theory better, but it was like never having studied statistics: faintly embarrassing and probably something I should correct, but not anything I needed on a daily basis.

(When asked, I described my own theoretical approach as "close-reading, I guess" or "historicist, but not really New Historicist." I knew those weren't good answers, when you work on religious prose, no one expects a better one.)

A couple of years after getting my Ph.D., I got serious about teaching myself theory. I read a lot over the course of several years, from general introductions and readers to articles and maybe a dozen book-length works. I wasn't prepared for what I discovered. First, my mind was blown. Like, daily. And I couldn't figure out how anything this urgent and interesting had gotten a reputation for irrelevance and impenetrability.

But second, and almost as surprisingly, I realized that I. . . kinda knew this stuff already. I was using much of it in my work. I hadn't had a name for what I was doing and I couldn't talk about it in detail or trace its conceptual lineage, but my methods and assumptions about how texts work (and the relationship between texts and their authors or between texts and their historical periods) were indebted to a number of very specific figures and movements. Presumably, this is because my own teachers were so deeply steeped in theory that they just hadn't bothered to talk about it.

On the one hand, it was a great relief to realize that "theory" wasn't some mysterious or alien field of knowledge. But I was pissed that no one had made explicit to me that what we'd been doing in the classroom all those years wasn't just us reading stuff and talking about it more of less as people had done since the beginning of time. As Menand says, any way of reading a text that isn't totally naive--indeed, the very criteria for deciding which texts are worth reading in the first place--involves a theory of literature. And all such approaches have a history, and are indebted to their time and place and the values of their age.

I'm still not a particularly "theoretical" scholar, if by that you mean someone who can talk at length about the influence of this dude or that on her work. I would be reluctant to teach an intro theory course. But I teach bits and pieces of theory in many of my classes--and you'd better believe that I let my students know that the ways we think about and value works of art isn't any more static or timeless than the ways we think about or value human beings or the ways we organize our societies.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Younger than that now

I'm just back from #shakeass14--my fourth and final conference of the term, which is at least two too many--and as usual I'm filled with many feelings. Though I still don't quite feel that SAA is "my" conference (not being a drama scholar and all), it's the one where I feel most in touch with my corner of the profession, for good and for ill.

That's not so much about the work being presented, but about the size and the nature of the conference and to some degree its timing: it happens in April, after all the job market gossip is out. Even with its recent growth, the conference remains small enough to fit in one hotel and large enough that it seems everyone I know is there. Most importantly, it's a conference that remains welcoming to very junior people and those on the margins of the profession; its seminar format, where works-in-progress are precirculated and everyone gives feedback to everyone (grad students to very senior scholars and vice-versa) is a large part of this. SAA is kind of like Twitter: it's not that there's no hierarchy (or no jackassery), but it creates a space for conversations and friendships that set age, rank, and status aside.

For that reason, I was disappointed that the official conference made some missteps; not only did the programming skew toward older participants, but there were a number of unprofessional, self-indulgent, and/or ungenerous statements made by senior people speaking publicly at various podiums (I witnessed two and heard about two others). That still amounts to only a small proportion of the conference, but it's not a good tone to set. One person is an anomaly. Multiple people getting prime airtime feels like an endorsement.

But if the tone of the conference struck me as less welcoming to The Yoots than it might have been, I myself spent more time with grad students or recent PhDs than I have since I was one myself. This wasn't, like, a project on my part; there just happened to be a critical mass of interesting younger people around--some of whom I'd met at previous conferences or on social media while others were the friends, acquaintances, or grad students of my friends. And they were at the bar and I was at the bar and whether any of us now remembers our conversations clearly, it was still a good time.

Hanging out with fun people is its own reward, but for anyone concerned about the larger profession, talking to grad students and recent PhDs should also feel essential. Our juniors aren't just our future, but our present: the kind of work they're doing is a good index of what the discipline values (and this is true whether they're writing "safe" dissertations or balls-to-the-wall dissertations), and the forms of professionalization and pedagogical training they receive are also worth our knowing and understanding if we hope to hire them. The knowledge-transfer needs to work both ways.

I genuinely believe that most mid-career types want to know, or at least are open to knowing, their juniors. Some don't make much of an effort and others don't know how (whenever I feel slighted, I ask myself: is it possible this person is just deeply socially inept? usually the answer is yes), which is why conferences that foster conversations across rank are so important. But of course, there are scholars, at all career stages, who think the only people worth meeting are those senior to them. And those people suck.

The thing is, the profession is hard on everyone these days. Anyone hired in the past couple of decades either has his own scars or has seen up close and personal those of some dear friends. If you've gone through a hazing process yourself, I don't see how it's possible not to relate to those behind you--and to want to make it easier on them where you can. But as the culture of hazing teaches us, there are those who, once they've made it, buy into its logic, cling to whatever limited status they've achieved, and demand even more obeisance from their juniors than was demanded of them.

Luckily, at the SAA there's an easy way to exorcize such people from one's conference experience: just go to the dance. Those obsessed with status are generally not to be found playing air guitar.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Partner hiring, qu'est-ce que c'est?

Ever since this post, I've been planning on outlining what commenter TG referred to as "the doctrine and discipline of partner hiring." But though you'd think that after the successful resolution of my own two-body problem I'd have lots to say on the subject, the reality is that there's no single thing that we mean when we talk about partner hiring.

Consider, for example, these different scenarios:

One partner, upon being offered an entry-level tenure-track job, negotiates a non-tenure track job for the other

Someone already in a TT job negotiates a non-TT job for his or her partner

One partner is already in a TT job and the department creates a TT line for his or her partner

Two partners apply and get hired for two TT jobs in the same department at the same time

Two partners get recruited and hired for two TT jobs together

One partner, upon being recruited for a senior position, is offered a second TT position for his or her partner.

One partner, already in a TT job, gets an outside offer, and makes a TT job for his or her partner a condition of staying

One partner is already in a TT job, the department runs a search for a TT position in the other partner's field, and that partner gets hired after a national search

One partner is already in a TT job, the department has an opening in the other partner's field, and hires the other partner without a national search

All of those are situations that get described as "partner hiring," but they're quite different. Generally, when I talk about partner hiring, I mean situations where each partner ends up in a tenure-line job at the same institution--both because I presume that, all other things being equal, most couples would prefer that scenario, and because it's the filling or creating of TT lines that causes the most trouble and potential conflict.

However, even with that limitation, there are still so many variables that I'm not sure it's even possible to talk about "being in favor of" or "being opposed to" partner hiring in general.

Since I'm part of an academic couple and I know many others, I've always previously said that I support partner hiring. But when I say that, I'm taking as a given that both partners are accomplished and desirable hires, and more than competitive within the pool of other applicants (or relative to other recent hires); I'm also assuming that no one is forcing anything on a hiring department--that, if there wasn't a national search, there was at least a consensus that hiring the partner was a smart pick-up. That reflects the scenarios I know best: situations where both partners are on the tenure track at peer institutions, producing work basically equivalent in quantity and quality, but for whom finding jobs at the same place remains elusive.

Those who dislike the idea of partner hires often have a very different scenario in mind, sometimes equally born of unfortunate personal experience: a less-qualified partner gets hired, without full departmental consultation, sometimes as the result of one or two people throwing their weight around, and sometimes in ways that reinforce traditional power structures (senior man gets his 25-year-old girlfriend hired; straight people get privileged over queers; chair or dean makes an executive decision).

I'd venture to say that, phrased that way, almost of us are in favor of a good opportunity hire who's committed to the institution because it's where his or her partner works and against an underqualified hire that's forced upon a department--and if those distinctions are more than matters of perception, they come down partly to institutional type and culture. A less-healthy institution is more likely to do partner hiring badly (because the culture is an imperial one, or where certain kinds of people get valued more than others), and a more healthy one is more likely to do it well or at least in ways that don't piss other faculty off.

If I could propose a few general rules, though, these would be they:

1. Any secondarily-hired partner should be competitive within the department's usual pool of applicants. It's foolish to say that he or she must be the most qualified person (since the idea that one can rank candidates in some absolute and objective way is usually a fiction), but he or she should do more than meet minima.

2. The decision to hire should be made in a way that has widespread departmental support, whatever that might mean in a given context.

3. If hiring a partner means creating a new line, it shouldn't compromise existing hiring goals (e.g., hiring another Americanist shouldn't mean foregoing the medievalist a department has been requesting for three years)

4. No preference should be given to straight couples over gay ones

5. After hiring, the partners are expected to function as independent agents, getting no preferential treatment and each doing his or her fair share of service. (The exception would be cases where two partners are hired to share one line.)

None of this, however, makes actually attaining a partner hire any easier, and it's harder the earlier one is in one's career and the less leverage one has--I know virtually no one, for example, who upon being offered an entry-level tenure-track job was able to negotiate a second TT job for his or her partner. And none of this protects a department against disaster scenarios like a messy divorce.

The real problem, for everyone, is that partner hiring is no one thing, and it's hard to make a general rule or take other people's experiences as either a model or a warning.

*

Readers, what would you add to my list? Or do you have any advice either for those trying to solve the two-body problem or departments considering helping them?

Monday, March 31, 2014

That well-known laugh riot

Today's Times has an article about an Arabic-language production of King Lear put on by children in a Syrian refugee camp. It's an affecting story for a lot of reasons, and one that underscores how truly global Shakespeare's cultural capital is. (Among the more interesting details is the fact that the production freely interpolated lines and scenes from Hamlet.)

But when the director, a 40-year-old Syrian television star, declares that "The show is to bring back laughter, joy and humanity," I have to think that maybe he's chosen the wrong play.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Bucket of nouns

I'm just back from the Renaissance Society of America's annual conference, and I'm here to tell you that I am OVER the question & answer session as it transpires after the typical conference panel.

Now, a round-table discussion is a different beast, as are single-presenter talks before a specialized audience; in those cases, the Q&A is often a great opportunity to hear someone expand on her work or for the group to brainstorm together. But the average conference Q&A involves what seems to be an invisible bucket of nouns passed around the audience. Each person sticks her hand in, pulls out a random noun, and builds a question around it.

The wind-up will vary in length and coherence, but the question usually amounts to, "I'm wondering if you can say anything about how your research engages with [RANDOM NOUN]."

You can make your own set and play at home, but in my field the cards might include:

Luther

Deleuze & Guattari

The lyric

Ecocriticism

The Bishops War

Oral culture

Hobbes

Tasso

City comedy

Political theology

Book 2 of The Faerie Queene

Sometimes the nouns are extremely specialized and sometimes they're extremely broad, but the common feature is that they come from left field and may be of interest to literally no one but the person doing the asking. In the most egregious cases, the questioner will grab a whole fistful of nouns and string them together--not always with any logical connection and not always phrased in the form of a question--followed by, "anyway, I'd love to hear what you think about that."

Four times out of five, I hate sitting through someone else's Q&A session. Nine times out of ten, I hate participating in one as a presenter. Partly this is because I don't process information well aurally, so though I've had some very successful Q&A sessions, they still felt like artificial exercises. Rarely have I actually had any new thoughts in the process of the session; I've just succeeded in sounding smart because the questions gave me the chance to explain the background or larger context of my project or to rehearse material from the longer version. I give potted answers, basically, even if they don't sound that way and weren't prepared in advance.

Increasingly, these days, when someone heaves a bucket-of-nouns question at me, I just say, "to be honest, I haven't thought about my work in connection with X." Or "Well, I haven't read that in a long time, so I shouldn't pretend to know more than I do." Sometimes I'll give a version of, "I'm not answering that question" four or five times in a single Q&A.

I value real questions and real feedback about my work, and I love talking with audience members about it afterwards. But even the best questions are not best asked or answered in a relatively high-pressure situation--and in my experience, the best questions account for maybe 10% of the questions one gets asked.

The rest? Bucket of nouns.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Competing for the middle-class job

What with being on a hiring committee last year, being a candidate this year, and hearing the war stories of a bunch of friends who've just served on search committees, I've been thinking a lot about the kind of preparation I didn't get, in grad school, for interviewing at the kind of school at which I now teach.

My current institution and my future institution are what Cosimo likes to call "middle-class jobs": places that aren't glamorous, but where research and teaching are both valued and where it's still possible to have a serious scholarly agenda and be a player in one's field. I'm not interested in delineating the exact boundaries of "middle class," in part because every individual has her own sense of which jobs are congenial or unbearable. But here's what a middle-class job is not: it is not a place that, simply by employing you, enhances your scholarly reputation. That means, obviously, that it's not an Ivy--but it's also not a state flagship or any institution where you're teaching doctoral students. Nor is it an elite, teaching-oriented undergraduate institution, like Williams. It's the other kind of teaching institution: a public or private B.A. or M.A.-granting institution or an R2, a place with a wide range of student backgrounds and ability levels, but a place that still hires specialists rather than generalists, where the teaching isn't primarily service, and where there are real research expectations for tenure and enough time and resources to meet those expectations.

Getting one is the equivalent, I guess, of being a "working actor": someone who can support herself and get respect doing what she loves--even if she isn't known outside the profession and lives in a tiny apartment in farthest Queens.

These are not the jobs that the advisors and mentors of doctoral candidates at elite programs were excited for them to get, 10 or 15 years ago, but they're now looking more and more appealing as the job market continues to contract and as the mid-career faculty at those institutions look more and more impressive. When everyone at Local State College has a top-20 degree and a book or two, the teaching load doesn't scare off the candidates it used to. (And as I've mentioned before, teaching load is a pretty inexact measure of how burdensome or how rewarding a job will be.)

But although my department gives MLA interviews to a lot of candidates from top programs--serious researchers who may be seriously interested in teaching--many don't make that cut and a lot get knocked out at MLA for reasons that are ultimately fixable. From chatting with my friends at similar institutions, certain misunderstandings about our jobs seem common.

Here are the first two things that every applicant should know about middle-class jobs:

1. You actually do need a real scholarly track record.

Your fancy degree and glowing letters of reference alone will not get you an interview, but neither will your years of experience teaching at a comparable institution. (I've seen people on social media saying things like, "Teaching School X obviously doesn't care about teaching, since they don't even interview people like me. They always hire some Ivy League Ph.D.!" In some cases I know these people and think they're tremendously talented. . . but they have nothing in print. Or forthcoming. Or accepted.)

If a "teaching school" expects four or five articles or a book for tenure, you'd better believe they aren't hiring someone without publications. Indeed, a middle-class job may be more concerned to hire someone with a proven track record, since the teaching load is higher and there may not be opportunities for course releases or a pre-tenure leave. They also want to be able to tenure everyone they hire. There are legitimate reasons to worry that someone who hasn't yet published might not be able to meet that standard.

2. You also need real teaching experience. Ideally, you will have taught self-designed versions of all the bread-and-butter classes in your field.

The more elite your graduate program, the fewer opportunities you have to teach. This is a selling point when you get your acceptance letters, but a problem when you're on the market. When I was in grad school, we were told that we needed to teach at least one self-designed class, and that it was a good idea to have experience teaching comp. But it never occurred to me that in order to be in the running for many jobs I would need experience teaching my own Shakespeare class, or Brit Lit I. (For one thing. . . how would I do that? Those were not courses grad students in my program got to teach.)

The fact that you've written a dissertation on Shakespeare is actually not proof that you can teach a course on Shakespeare, especially to a mixed group of non-elite students. Again: a higher teaching load means we want someone who's ready to hit the ground running. We want to avoid having someone work up four (or more!) new preps in her first year of full-time teaching.

*

Just about everyone who makes it to a convention interview has those first two things covered. But that doesn't mean they're prepared to answer interview questions that the committee considers straightforward. In retrospect, there were questions where I misunderstood what the committee was actually asking--perhaps because my job placement officers and the people doing my mock interviews also didn't understand that different institutions might expect different kinds of answers.

Here are a few:

1. How would you teach X class?

I was taught to answer this question by listing the texts I would teach (and/or the order in which I would teach them or their thematic groupings). That's a fine first sentence or two, but generally a hiring committee assumes that you know the canonical texts in your area and can select a reasonable eight or fifteen. What they actually want to know is, how would you teach this class? Is it a two-essays-plus-a-midterm-and-a-final class? A four-papers-each-with-a-revision class? Do you give quizzes? Homework assignments? Of what sort? How do you teach difficult concepts? What skills do you focus on? Do you prefer teaching fewer texts in greater depth? Going for a sampler-menu approach? And what's your rationale for those decisions?

The committee wants to see how you approach pedagogical issues and how you think as a teacher. Even if you've taught that course five times before, it might be taught differently at the institution that's interviewing you. If you don't remember (or didn't look at) their particular curriculum, ask questions! Are there any pre-reqs? what's the course cap? does this course attract non-majors as well as majors? at what level is this typically taught? And it's absolutely fine to say, "I've only taught this as a seminar, where I did Y and Z, but in your department, with 30 students and many non-majors, I'd adapt it by doing..."

2. How would you reach a diverse student population?

The correct answer to this question is not that you believe in meeting students where they are; that even at Harvard there are many ability levels in one classroom; that you'd hold extra office hours for students who are struggling. As with the above, this question is asking you for concrete pedagogical strategies. How would you teach an upper-division seminar where some students have done prior work in the field and some don't know even the basic terms? Have you thought about how to run a 30- or 40-person intro class that isn't a lecture? How do you weight your assignments to give credit to students who are succeeding in some areas but desperately weak in others?

Again, it's great to engage the committee in conversation about their experiences, expectations, or the challenges of their curriculum. Part of what you're showing is that you're open to trying new things, that you're eager to learn and adapt. Any new student population is going to require an adjustment, and the committee knows that. You just don't want to seem totally clueless or oblivious to the conditions at the hiring institution. (Personally, I was completely unaware that classes existed that weren't a) seminars, or b) lectures. What else was there?? Most of my teaching since then, as it turns out.)

3. How do you see yourself contributing to the department or college in terms of service?

Some schools will ask you a question about service. It's not really a fair question to ask of candidates straight from grad school (or who have held contingent jobs that don't require service), especially since you're not usually going to be able to glean much about departmental governance or organization from a webpage. But you should still be prepared with an answer. You're probably safe if you can say something about curriculum design or advisement, or about involvement in student-centered activities (working with First-Year Experience or study abroad, advising the film club or literary magazine, sponsoring the LGBT student group).

4. Tell us about your research

Questions about research, in my experience, don't present unusual problems, which is why I listed this one last even though it's likely to come first in an interview. Middle-class schools are more likely to ask you softball questions (tell us about your research; how does your work fit into recent trends in your discipline; where do you see your research going over the next five years) and are less likely to surprise you with a really complex or pointed follow-up. However, they will still ask questions and they will still expect you to bring the goods. Don't talk down to them, even if no one on the committee is in your subfield. A glossy, simplistic version will always sound like one.

*

Now, everything in this post falls into the category of "necessary but not sufficient": I am not implying that anyone who has had trouble finding a job must have been ignorant of the above points--or that mastering them will guarantee one; the market is broken and there are tremendously qualified candidates who know and do all of these things and who still come up empty-handed. But seeing otherwise great candidates muff these particular questions again and again has made me think it would be useful to outline some fixes for what appear to be routine misunderstandings or gaps in preparation.

Readers at teaching schools, what other mismatches of approach have you seen, and how do you think they can be addressed? (Please frame your comments in the spirit of helpfulness rather than candidate-bashing. It's tough out there and this is a sad time of year for many people.)

Thursday, March 13, 2014

It doesn't hurt to ask*

The academic internet is aflame with this story of a job candidate in philosophy who got an offer from Nazareth College, made a counter-offer--and then got told that, as a result of her requests, her offer was rescinded.

Now, I know the college in question, and so I have a very real sense of how unrealistic her requests were (her proposed salary, for example, was probably 30-40% higher than what they'd offered). But so what? You tell the candidate "no"--or you improve the offer very minimally--and you let her decide whether that's something she can live with. Instead, the college rejected her preemptively.

Predictably, a number of the comments on both the IHE article and the original blog post are keen to blame the candidate. But as others have pointed out (including Stephanie Hershinow, who brought the article to my attention and my Twitter conversation with whom inspired this post), the way someone behaves in the context of a high-stakes negotiation isn't necessarily an indication of their true personality or attitude toward the job. A recent Ph.D. has probably never been in this situation before, and is likely operating according to other people's advice. Family and friends who work in the business world aren't reliable guides, but often even one's graduate-school mentors and advisors aren't reliable, either. They may simply have no idea what's possible at an institution very different from their own.

My own job placement officer was no help at all. When I got my offer from RU, eight years ago, the dean quoted me a salary and a fixed amount for moving expenses, told me I'd be getting a new computer and printer--and then asked me to tell him how much I needed in start-up research funds. I knew enough to try to negotiate, and I came up with a rationale for a (modestly) higher salary, but I had absolutely no idea what kind of range was reasonable for start-up funds at a regional state institution. So I emailed the job placement officer at my graduate program. To his credit, he at least indicated that he really didn't know what was reasonable at a place like RU before adding, "I can tell you, though, that when I started at INRU my own start-up budget was $60,000."

Uh, yeah. Not helpful.

The thing is, negotiating is hard. Most of us don't do it often, and when we do, we're usually caught between the terror of losing out on something we desperately want and the fear of squandering our one opportunity for leverage. I got a very good deal with the job I just accepted, but that's partly because I wasn't dying to take the job. I already had a job I liked and I knew this offer wasn't going to go away just because I asked for too much. So I asked for the very far end of what I considered possible. They agreed immediately. Honestly, though: if I'd been dying for the job, I wouldn't have asked for as much. I would have been afraid to.

The philosopher, however, asked for what she wanted. Maybe, like me, she didn't care enough to make a more careful offer; she's currently in a post-doc that she apparently wanted to extend, and she may have figured that she'd have better options next year. I wouldn't necessarily blame her for that. Candidates get a huge amount of pressure from their graduate institutions never to say no, even when they have good reasons not accept: no job prospects for a partner; an isolated region unlikely to be welcoming to certain minorities; not enough money to live on; or just a place that gives off a bad bad vibe. Candidates know the market is bad, and know they're not supposed to say no. But it's not just the prima donnas who sometimes have a hard time saying yes.

So though I'd counsel any job candidate who was serious about a particular job to research the institution and to make requests basically within the realm of the possible, this philosopher's approach is otherwise pretty unobjectionable. From what she shared of her email correspondence, she made her counter-offer by first expressing her enthusiasm for the job and then laying out the areas in which she hoped for movement. She acknowledged that some might be more doable than others and asked the committee for their thoughts. This is exactly the way women get counseled to negotiate: without being apologetic or wishy-washy, but also without issuing ultimatums or insisting on any one item.

Nazareth chose to read this as a sign of her outrageous and unreasonable personality, and I suspect there may be a gendered component to this response. (I have a friend who negotiated hard at her hiring, got strong terms--and her chair made snide, resentful remarks about it for years.) Really, though, it sounds like the old "you can't dump me--I'm dumping YOU!"


----------------
*Updated March 14: comments thread now contains a link to additional information from the candidate.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Being lucky

As it turns out, other people have things to say about solving the two-body problem. The author wastes a lot of time flattering yours truly (as Eve tells Satan, "thy overpraising leaves in doubt/The virtue of that fruit"), but if you can hold your nose through that, there's smart advice not only for those facing the two-body problem, but anyone wondering how to achieve their career goals within or outside their current institution.

The most valuable take-away is that there's never really a strategy--if by that we mean something with a well-defined endgame. In academia, you simply cannot say, "I want a job at University X" and devise a plan that will lead you to that goal. The only thing you can do is work hard, build your career, stay ready, and keep an eye out for whatever opportunities arise.

Or as Dr. C. says, using a baseball metaphor:

The. . . reason they teach ballplayers to run out hopeless ground balls is because occasionally it does actually get you somewhere. Sometimes you hit the ball and don't seem to have any chance at reaching base. But then some piece of unexpected luck, some fluke, gives you an unforeseen opportunity. Players are taught to run hard for first base, no matter what, so that they have a chance to be lucky. You need to put in the work before there is any apparent hope; if you don't turn on your full speed until something surprising happens, you're probably too late. If you ever get a sudden bit of good luck, you need to be running as hard as you can.

Too few people get lucky these days, and the job market has many more people ready for their break than it has breaks to give. But any strategy is doomed if it isn't flexible enough to accommodate luck and chance and change.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Don't sell out your colleagues. Even the assholes.

Yesterday's Times carried a story about Michigan's defense of its same-sex marriage ban, and particularly its use of scholarship arguing that children raised in same-sex households are disadvantaged. According to the article, Michigan's use of the child-welfare argument is unusual: most states have abandoned that approach, since most research now indicates that children raised in same-sex households fare about the same as those raised in heterosexual ones. Even more unusual is the response of the department that houses one dissenting researcher. Basically, it's rushed to disown him:

On the same day that Mark Regnerus, the most prominent of the state's witnesses, started his testimony, his own department of sociology at the University of Texas issued a highly unusual and stinging disclaimer:

"Dr. Regnerus's opinions are his own," wrote Christine L. Williams, the department chairwoman. "They do not reflect the views of the sociology department of the University of Texas at Austin. Nor do they reflect the views of the American Sociological Association, which takes the position that the conclusions he draws from his study of gay parenting are fundamentally flawed."

Confronted on the witness stand with that statement, Dr. Regnerus called it "regrettable" and said, "I guess they have been getting negative press probably about my appearance here."

I'm not a lawyer, but this strikes me as a weak move. Wouldn't it be better for the plaintiff's lawyers to cite the American Sociological Association itself? Or itemize the specific methodological flaws in Regnerus's work? Or present the studies that have come to contradictory conclusions? I mean, is the department chair an actual expert in this area? Who cares what she says?

Now, I support same-sex marriage and I'm skeptical of any work that suggests children are harmed by it. But since I'm not a sociologist, I'm not going to go around making public statements about the work of someone trained in that field. But you know what else I'm not going to do? I'm also not going to go around making public statements about the merits of the work done by my colleagues who are twentieth-century Americanists, or Victorianists, or medievalists. If I'm a department chair or on a P&T committee, sure: I have to make judgements about my colleagues' work from time to time, and to do so I have to rely largely on what other specialists say about it. But whatever I come think about their work, I'm not going to trash it in a public forum.

The Times doesn't make clear where Williams's statement was originally made, and that matters (the text appears on the department's website). But as presented in the article, this seems like a terrible precedent for academic departments, one as likely to be used against people who are on the cutting edge of research as those mounting a rear-guard action.

By all means: if your colleague's work strikes you as flawed or objectionable, and a reporter asks you about it, go ahead and point out that faculty pursue their own research interests, work independently, and that no one "speaks" for the department as a whole. But collegiality and confidentiality would both seem to demand you not go further than that.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Winning the lottery, part II

Okay! I'm back and ready to share a few more details. This will surely be only the first of many posts on Things Job Markety--believe me, I have A LOT to say--but I'm guessing that my adoring public wants the autobiographical part first.

The short version is that this was a weird year, and flukey good luck played an even bigger role than it does in most job market success stories. The biggest fluke was that both my department and Cosimo's wound up getting approval to hire in our respective partner's subfield. Neither position was intended as a partner hire--our institutions don't have a mechanism for that, and neither do they typically make mid-career hires (there isn't the budget for it, and, absent doctoral students, there isn't really the need). But although both lines were very much needed for curricular reasons, neither was either department's first hiring priority. So it was a big surprise that both departments got multiple searches approved.

This was obviously our luckiest break, but since both jobs were advertised as entry-level we tried not to get our hopes up; Cosimo is four years past tenure and I'm two, and we're well-paid for the kinds of institutions that we're at. Although living together has been a major goal (and would save our household a certain amount of money), we weren't willing to cripple our careers to make it happen. So we agreed that we'd rather turn down an offer--or even two!--if it involved one of us taking a big professional hit.

So we applied. . . and waited to see what would happen. Even though each of us had some inside knowledge about the department that we were applying to, we had absolutely no inside knowledge about the search itself; the waiting and wondering WHAT THE HELL WAS HAPPENING was pretty much as I remember it from job-market years past.

I'm not going to pretend that we didn't have advantages, but they aren't necessarily the ones that people think of when they carp about inside candidates. Neither set of colleagues had ever seen the spousal candidate teach, or read his or her scholarship, or heard him or her present a paper; I'm sure they were mostly predisposed to think well of us, but they only knew us socially and I think were perfectly capable of being appalled by our teaching or research if it had been appalling. Moreover, there were probably at least one or two members of each department predisposed against a spousal candidate.

At the same time, the reality is that no one else in those applicant pools looked quite like me or Cosimo because no one else with our experience, credentials, and publication records was going to be applying for an entry-level job at a regional public institution. When you don't hire mid-career, you just don't get candidates who have already made a name for themselves in their fields and who could be your next chair or help you redesign your curriculum from the ground up. You get great candidates with strong early track records--absolutely. But their strengths are not fully comparable. And funnily enough, the nature of our inside-candidacy helped guarantee that both searches were "real searches": even if one department had been hell-bent on hiring their existing colleague's spouse, the hiring committee had to know there was a real chance they'd fail, either because the institution couldn't make a good enough offer or because the couple might choose to go to the other institution. So all the finalists were strong candidates whom each department was genuinely excited about. They had to be.

At this point in the story, in the interests of confidentiality, I'm going to get a little vague about the details. So let's just say that although both departments were wonderfully supportive and strong advocates for a solution that wouldn't involve compromising either partner's career, only one institution was able to make such a solution happen. As a result, I'll be leaving my current job at the end of the 2014-15 academic year and joining Cosimo's department.

I'm still grieving the fact that I'll be leaving a department where I've been so happy, but I have no complaints about how any part of the process played out. Moreover, my new institution has made the move very much worth my while. My sadness is also tempered by the fact that I'll be returning to RU to repay the year I owe after my sabbatical. Not everyone would be thrilled about that--but frankly, I prefer it. We've been off living in a rented apartment for seven months, away from friends and colleagues, and next year will give me the chance to leave in a deliberative way. I need the time to say goodbye to the people and places I love. . . and also to get itchy and impatient to move on.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Winning the lottery

So, the eventfulness I referred to in my last post has concluded, which means I can now reveal that for many months Cosimo and I have been on the job market with the specific goal of solving our two-body problem. This wasn't something we fretted about much during the fall, but since mid-January, when we learned that we were finalists at two different institutions, it's been hard to focus on anything else. Thus my near-absence from this blog.

The good news is that we emerged victorious: we accepted a very strong offer and will be joining a department of talented teacher-scholars. I'll share more details soon.

But the reality is that whatever happened was going to come with a cost: either outcome was going to require our giving up some cherished friends and colleagues, some beloved spaces and places, and at least one city where we'd spent years trying to put down roots. As sorrows go, I grant that this is a minor one. Who feels sorry for the person who won the lottery? But although there's nothing to dislike about the future that's opening up, I need a few days to be sad about the other futures that won't be happening now.

I'll be back when I'm feeling more celebratory.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Thirty-nine.

Apologies for falling off the face of the internet; the last month has been. . . eventful. Eventfulness prevents me from saying more just yet, but in the meanwhile, hey! I'm thirty-fucking-nine years old!

Young Flavia is pretty excited, too.

Monday, February 10, 2014

PSA for no one in particular

If you've ever said to yourself, "you know, I like Flavia's blog--what with the snark and the intemperance and the navel-gazing and all--but what I'd really like to see is what she could do with 90,000 words on seventeenth-century religious prose," then you, my extremely unusual friend, are in luck.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Jus sanguinis

As I've mentioned on Facebook and Twitter, I am now apparently an Italian citizen.

Italy, like Ireland, allows "heritage" dual citizenship for Americans who can prove genealogical descent (and who are willing to assemble a ton of documents and jump through a lot of hoops), and after years of talking about it, my dad finally submitted all the paperwork through the Italian consulate in Los Angeles; eleven months later, the members of my immediate family have dual citizenship (Cosimo will be eligible in October, after we've been married for three years). If I can convince the New York consulate to update my address, I could have an Italian passport as early as next month.

It's a weird thing. I can't decide if it's more James Bond--a lock-box full of passports!--or more suburban-Subaru with a rear-window full of college and country decals. Since I have no plans to move to the EU, in the short-term this basically buys me shorter lines at European customs & immigration and means I wouldn't need a visa if wanted to spend more than 90 days in an EU country (e.g., while on a sabbatical or leading a study abroad program). Given that Italy does not offer birthright citizenship and in fact makes citizenship very hard to obtain for the children of immigrants, I admit I'm a little uncomfortable with the politics of the program; by all means, take whatever advantage you can of Italian-American pride, nostalgia, and tourism dollars--but my Italian "blood" does not make me as Italian as a kid of North African descent whose first language is Italian and who has lived there his entire life.

Still. My discomfort doesn't mean I won't be flashing my passport and speaking with the approximate fluency of a six-year-old at every future opportunity.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Pop-cultural flotsam

Mark Edmundson's meandering mess of an essay at the Chronicle has attracted a lot of ridicule in the corners where I hang out on the internet, and it is indeed a doozy. Though I'm often impatient with Edmundson's take on the humanities--both his fuzzy celebration of their value and his dour certainty that they're doomed--I respect him as a writer and have usually felt that his heart is in the right place: he values the humanities; I value the humanities; and the fact that he has a national audience probably helps all of us.

But this. . . well, even before I got to the really outrageous part, I was embarrassed for him. It's a self-indulgent and not entirely coherent account of Edmundson's time at Yale and how alienated he felt from both the tweedy profs with their sherry and the undergraduates he regarded as an undifferentiated mass of Skull & Bonesmen headed straight for Wall Street and/or the C.I.A. Edmundson was different--what with his black leather jacket--and so felt some initial sympathy with the rise of theory, which seemed sexy and young and opposed to all that fusty establishmentarianism. But! Over the years he came to see the nothing and the nihilism at the core of theory, and his essay concludes with the sorrowful realization that the tweedy fuddy-duddies had it right all along. But alas, the fuddy-duddies are all dead, and now "[f]ew professors in my field, literature, believe that they can distinguish rigorously between pop-culture flotsam and the works of Milton. Few of them know how to mount an argument that values Wyatt's poetry over a video game."

Um. Say what?

That last quotation is the portion of the essay that has received the most scorn, and rightfully so. Some of Edmundson's defenders claim he's merely being hyperbolic, and though I'm not convinced that he is--wild claims of this sort have been a staple of conservative critiques of the academy* for decades--whether Edmundson literally means that there are legions of literature professors who can't discriminate between the value of Paradise Lost and a video game or whether he means merely that they can't mount a coherent argument for the value of any canonical author, he's wrong.

Most professors know how to argue for the worth of whichever texts are canonical within their particular area of expertise, and most do so explicitly or implicitly one semester after the other. One reason is that we tend to be hired within traditionally-defined subfields ("Victorian Novel," "Modernist Poetry") and tend to be expected to teach bread-and-butter genre or period surveys. This means we do a lot of thinking about what our students need to know and what it would be irresponsible to leave out; we also--and especially if we happen to teach any subject that isn't immediately appealing to students--tend to think about how to make the case for those texts. Believe me: even at the most elite schools, students do not arrive convinced of their need to study Chaucer or Milton.

At less-elite institutions this is doubly true. (I've had students who assume "British Literature"--all of it!--is strange and foreign and totally distinct from any American literature ever.) At RU, Shakespeare is a required course, but I still consider it my job to make the case, actively and every day, for why Shakespeare is worth reading. I do not assume it. Canonical works only remain canonical because new generations of readers continue to fall in love with them and continue to believe in their worth; if your only argument for Shakespeare's canonicity is "because generations have said so," or even, "because I love him," you've lost. And lemme tell you: if I couldn't make the case for Milton, my classes would get cancelled. I only get to teach Milton because I sell him, hard, to students who have frequently never heard of him.

But I want to move away from the question of whether professors still recognize a canon and toward an interrogation of what we're doing when we dismiss some works as "pop cultural flotsam." I'm not sure what Edmundson intended to include in this category, and his vagueness is probably strategic. But as someone who works on an earlier period, I've long noticed that conservative critics who inveigh against the teaching of pop culture, ephemera, women and minority writers (and so on) do not take quite the same position when it comes to very minor writers who happen to be part of the establishment. So, early modern ballads, sermons, and the works of fifth-rate playwrights are so interesting and so worthwhile and even an important work of recovery (because: OUR HERITAGE!), but Mary Wroth and Margaret Cavendish--nevermind Toni Morrison, August Wilson or The Sopranos--aren't important enough or central enough to the culture.

Now, I'm not claiming that this is how Edmundson feels--I don't know his opinions about any of those works or writers--but I'm uncomfortable with any sweeping dismissal of popular culture. The fact is that virtually all serious scholars work on noncanonical texts at least some of the time (I wrote almost an entire book about 'em!), but not all noncanonical texts get sneered at as "flotsam." I can tell you that I've never once had anyone assert the triviality of the material I work on: it's old enough and aligned enough with traditional sources of power (the court, the church) that it reads as serious and important. But I'm not sure it's intrinsically any more or less valuable, as a subject for analysis, than 1950s sit-coms. Part of the question is what one does with the texts in question.

Some uncanonical texts are useful primarily for contextual or historical information (to see the evolution of a particular writer's works; to study the conventions of a genre; to understand the period's attitude toward gender, money, science, religion), but many are aesthetically interesting in their own right to a greater or lesser degree. I teach very few of the noncanonical texts I work on, but I'll assign the occasional sermon or excerpt from an ars moriendi manual, just as some of my colleagues show the occasional clip from a sit-com or bring in a series of midcentury advertisements.

The formal and interpretative skills that scholars bring to Shakespeare or Faulkner can be applied to any aesthetic object, however low or high, serious or pop-cultural, but only the best will keep yielding new meanings. Some of our t.v. shows (and, who knows? maybe even video games) will last or will be rediscovered by future scholars. Some of our "serious" novels and films will not. In the meanwhile, we study and we teach what seems most meaningful, most illuminating, most worthy. Most the time, those are canonical or critically-acclaimed texts. But real humanists know when and how to attend to the flotsam and ephemera.


--------------------
*H/t Phoebe, who has anatomized the conservative critique of academia in this post and later ones.