Friday, October 31, 2014

This is just to say

Back in September, everyone was freaking the fuck out over the MLA Job List--so few jobs! OMG! Apocalypse!

At the time I said--on a million Facebook and Twitter threads--that it was too early to tell, that jobs post later now, that initially things looked equally bad last year, that the jobs that had appeared were good ones.

Now it's October 31st, and I gotta admit: at least in Early Modern, it is that bad. As of today there are thirty-two tenure-track jobs with pre-MLA deadlines (a number that includes a few jobs at the associate or full levels and a few jobs overseas). Each of the last three years, in descending order, the number of pre-MLA tenure-line openings was 47, 41, and 49. Those weren't good numbers, but the market appeared to have stabilized at "pretty fucking bleak."

But unless this year is a fluke or institutions are shifting toward spring listings, we might say, with Satan, "in the lowest deep a lower deep/Still threatning to devour me opens wide."


Language and lit peeps: are you seeing similar things in your subfields?

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Flying on one engine

We've reached the point in the semester where everything is rapidly falling apart. Somehow I held it together through midterm, but it's been carnage since then. Most days it's a question of which disasters I'll avert and which I just have to let happen.

At the top of my disaster to-do list are grading and my Italian homework. But a few weeks ago I reached the point that I hit with any new obligation where I consider just cutting and running. Every Monday and Wednesday I toyed with the idea of skipping class, and then wondered whether I shouldn't drop the course entirely.

For as long as I can remember, that's been my first response to stress: a desire to shut down all nonessential operations. I fight this desire, usually, and usually it's worth it. Sooner or later things calm down and it's harder to start things back up than it is to keep them running. By now I know, too, that the point at which I'm tempted to abandon ship is often the point at which I'm starting to make real progress.

My students don't necessarily have that knowledge yet. Last week, on a day when my freshmen had a paper due (their second or their fourth, depending on how you count), six of my twenty-two students were absent. Most eventually contacted me and I gave extensions where I could, but the schedule for the next two weeks is punishing; there's no real way around it.

I feel for them. In recent weeks my Italian instructor has been doubling our homework; for some class meetings, I've spent four or five hours preparing. Last night (after teaching until 9.15 and getting home at 10) I managed to get through my homework in two hours--though whether that's because my comprehension is improving or because I was cutting corners, I don't know. Then today my instructor got sick and cancelled class. It's a brief reprieve, but I need it.

I can't eliminate any of my students' paper assignments, but I hope I can help them steer through this rough patch.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Back & better than ever

This semester, for the first time in a number of years, I put Merchant of Venice back on the syllabus for my Shakespeare class. Now, I love the play, but I'd taken it out for a bunch of pedagogical reasons that boiled down to my feeling I didn't have enough time to deal with all the issues it raised.

This time I moved it later in the syllabus and I decided I was going to give it three class periods instead of two. Those were both excellent ideas: for the first time, I can say my classes on that play rocked: there was close to 100% student involvement and I overheard a few students excitedly agreeing that this was their favorite play so far.

But as important as my course-design improvements surely were, I also think that I brought some new thing to the class myself.

First is simply freshness.

I almost literally cannot re-read every play every year (even beyond the fact that I often don't have the time to do so): my eye skips down the page; my mind disengages; I know the words so well I can't absorb what they mean. So I don't re-read every play every time I teach it, and I don't feel bad about that. Still, it's undeniable that reading something for the first time in a while means I usually teach it better. At a minimum, the time away means I'm more excited by the text. Usually, it also means I've had a few new thoughts about it.

Second is the fact that in the intervening years I've written an article on the play.

I've long since gotten over any sense of fraudulence as a teacher of Shakespeare: I know the period well; I've taught Shakespeare every semester for nine years; I've been attending to Shakespearean scholarship for nearly as long. But even though my teaching frequently draws upon books I've read or conference papers I've heard, there's a difference when the material is something I'm grappling with, too, or about which I have intellectual investments.

And since my research touched on exactly the things my students most wanted to know, the anxieties, discomforts, and presumptions they brought to the play didn't sideline the text. Not only do I now know rather a lot about Jews in early modern Europe, the various contradictory fantasies about Jews held by Renaissance Christians, and how scholars over the past 30 years have used that information to interpret the play--but I can distill that information efficiently so it fuels a real discussion about what Shakespeare wrote.


And that, my friends, is why research isn't inimical to teaching. And why everyone needs a damn sabbatical now and again.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Ghouls, rated

Halloween season seems like the right time to reflect on how much I hate the supernatural, especially in its spooky and/or undead varieties.

Here's a handy guide, to help you remember:

Zombies: I will never, ever--not if I live to be 200 years old--watch a movie or read a book involving zombies. I lose brain cells every time someone uses the word "zombie" in a sentence.

Werewolves: Hard to imagine they could be interesting, but the possibility isn't zero.

Vampires: As much as I hate virtually everything that has been written and/or filmed about vampires, I remain hopeful that they could be interesting.

Witches (sorcerers, warlocks, etc.): interesting maybe one time out of twenty.

Ghosts: I'm more interested in ghosts than not.


I think the message here is: I'm interested in human beings. The further one gets from the human, the less interested I am.

How do the rest of you feel about supernatural characters, narratives, or tropes?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Academic jobs as arts jobs

Because I'm buried in essays and exams after spending my fall break cavorting in New England, I bring you someone else's thoughts on positioning oneself for an academic job. (Because hey: man and woman is one flesh, right?)

The most useful point, I think, is the central one: that these days tenure-track jobs are most analogous to arts jobs--which is to say, the odds of success are about as likely for recent PhDs as they are for aspiring actors, novelists, and concert pianists. That's not exactly a comforting comparison, but one that illuminates why the relationship between talent and success is so imperfect.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Tailoring the job letter

Another Graduate Student asked me to talk about my experience on a hiring committee, and especially about the degree to which a candidate should tailor her application materials to each institution.

Other committee members may feel differently, but I think it's absurd to expect first-round applicants to do a significant amount of tailoring. First, it's inhumane: an applicant has other demands on her time, and researching every department in depth, imagining their possible needs and desires, and reworking the already-difficult genre of the job letter 25 or 30 times is not only labor-intensive, but psychologically exhausting--insofar as it requires vividly imagining each place and how one might make a life there.

Second, it's almost certainly time wasted.

Here's the thing: your job letter is, simultaneously, the most important document you'll produce in your job search and a hard document with which to really distinguish yourself. I've read a few catastrophically bad letters from people who genuinely didn't know the conventions of the genre, and a slightly larger but still small number with enough errors or awkwardnesses that it was impossible to take the applicants seriously. But after weeding out the bad letters, the rest sat somewhere on a spectrum from adequate to quite nice; at that point, what mattered most was what the candidates had done and how well they fit our position--not whether their every paragraph was a thing of fire and music.

This, I hope, is good news: your letter just has to get the job done. You don't need to write the world's most eloquent, original letter (in fact, in this context, originality is a bad thing; if someone asks you for a sonnet, you will not be rewarded for your exciting new verse form). You do need to be clear, succinct, and aware of your audience, and your writing should not contain elementary errors. But the conventions are there for a reason: they allow a committee with hundreds of applications to size up each one swiftly, and on more or less the same terms.

Obviously, you shouldn't send exactly the same job letter to every institution, but it's most useful to think in terms of general types of schools. You'll want a few different sentences or even different paragraphs that you can swap in and out depending on a particular department's teaching expectations, and you might emend your wording slightly here and there for similar reasons (e.g., "I would be eager to join [such a distinguished faculty] [a department of committed teacher-scholars] [an institution so dedicated to student success]").

But that kind of semi-generic tailoring should cover most things.* Personally, all I want is evidence that the candidate has read the job ad and has a sense of the kind of school we are (e.g., if the ad mentions comp, your letter should not speak exclusively about the graduate and upper-division courses you're interested in designing). It's probably useful to spend 20 minutes on each hiring department's webpage to flesh out what the job ad tells you--but I wouldn't recommend more than that.

Here's what's definitely labor wasted: showing that you have a detailed knowledge of the ins and outs of our curriculum.

Every department has oddities in its curriculum and its requirements, and it's hard to master them from the outside; it can also be hard to tell, from looking at online course listings, which courses are weirdo one-offs, which are regarded by a particular faculty member as his exclusive property, or which are holdovers from a different era. You don't need to reference our existing course numbers or titles. Just say what kind of courses you've taught or are prepared to teach: surveys, comp, single-author courses A and B, topical courses C and D, and what upper-division or grad classes you might design in the future. With minor adjustments, those things translate into most curricula.

I also think it's generally wasted labor for your letter to name-check existing faculty unless they work in your immediate field or their scholarship really does seem to be in productive conversation with your own; it's worth having a sense of the general profile of any department to which you're applying, but listing a bunch of names is not necessary.

Statements of affinity are nice--that is, remarks about your connection to the region or your interest in the institution's mission ("as a first-generation college student..."; "as a long-time admirer of the Jesuit humanist model of education..."). For my part, I'd say those are agreeable statements to encounter, and I usually remembered them for candidates who got a convention or campus visit, but I don't think they prompted me to give an application a second look if it wasn't strong to begin with. That may be different at other institutions.

As for your vita, it shouldn't require tailoring. As long as it's clearly laid out and easy to read, the committee can find whatever they're looking for. (But seriously, make sure it's clearly laid out.) Think of your vita and your job letter as being in conversation with each other: one allows you to list everything you've ever done; the other gives you a chance to narrate, explain, and reflect on the highlights. Resist the temptation to let either do the other's job.

To sum up: a good letter and an attractive, readable vita are worth laboring over. But there's no need to reinvent them each time. A good letter is a flexible document that you can emend around the edges without--hopefully--driving yourself crazy.


Readers who have served on hiring committees: are my reactions idiosyncratic (or particular to the kind of institution I'm at), or do you generally agree?

*I'm speaking throughout of the differences among four-year institutions, since those are the institutions I know; if I have readers who want to talk about the differences between application letters for four-year and two-year colleges, have at it in comments.