Thursday, August 29, 2013

Job market conspiracy theories

With a couple of weeks before this year's job market kicks into high gear, I thought I'd tackle the bogey-man know as the "inside candidate." If you've spent any time on the academic job wikis, you've seen this come up over and over: "I heard there's an inside candidate for this job. Does anyone know if that's true???"

Some wiki users have taken to ridiculing these queries; last year, one poster announced a new drinking game that involved doing a shot every time someone invoked the inside candidate theory. But I get where the paranoia comes from. The job market is so bad, and so out of a candidate's control, that it's not unreasonable to worry that everyone else knows something you don't--that there's some edge you ought to have or some secret to how the game is played. And since gossip is a kind of professional currency, rumors are perpetually presented as fact. ("Oh, you didn't know? Cornell has been trying to hire so-and-so for years. That isn't a real job listing; they're just dangling him another offer.")

But speculation about inside candidates isn't just pointless; it's also based on a misunderstanding of how searches work, what departments prioritize, and even what it means to be an inside candidate. So let me tell you what I've seen--and I'd be grateful to any readers who wanted to share their own experiences.

1. First off, yes: sometimes job ads are indeed written with one specific person in mind.

But here's the big caveat: most of the time this happens at the tenured level: a department is trying to recruit one specific, high-profile scholar, usually to advise doctoral students.

2. At the junior level the search is pretty much always a "real search"--even if the department is hoping to be able to hire a specific person.


If the department wants the line, they want the line for real, curricular reasons. Most departments are not so flush with cash that they just dreamed up a line for one specific person--and will cancel the search if she isn't available.

Relatedly, mounting a national search costs thousands of dollars and untold hours of a search committee's time. If they could hire a specific person through some other mechanism (and were sure she'd accept), they would.

3. People who look like inside candidates are not necessarily so. I've seen people on the wikis getting feverish about the presence of a VAP or lecturer in the relevant subfield when that individual is probably not competitive for that particular job in a national search. (Don't hate, I'm just breaking it down: if alllll the TT faculty have degrees from top-20 programs, the lecturer with a degree from the underfunded local uni is probably not someone they requested a line specifically to keep.)

4. A real inside candidate may still not be offered the job: maybe not everyone is equally sold on her, or maybe the department is divided about what sub-specialization it prefers. Or maybe another candidate just blows her out of the water.

5. A real inside candidate is almost certainly mounting her own national search. She may get a better offer. . . or she may not love the department that's trying to keep her as much as it loves her.

6. Finally, if there are far fewer inside candidates than scrutinizing a department's webpage or listening to gossip would have you believe, there are also inside candidates you don't and can't know about. There's no way for an applicant in romance languages to know that the university has made retaining a star faculty member in anthropology a priority--and his spouse is a French scholar. And there are plenty of candidates who aren't "inside" in any meaningful way, but who are for some reason already on the radar screen of the hiring committee and have some degree of advantage.

In almost a decade, I've only seen or heard of ONE junior-level search that "wasn't a real search." (Without going into too much detail, it was an ad for a job that someone was already holding: a catastrophic administrative failure had put an assistant professor's contract renewal in legal jeopardy, and to ensure the line the job had to be listed as if it were open.) In all other cases, even when there's a real inside candidate, the job goes to her much less than 50% of the time. And the department is almost always sincerely committed to finding the best person for the position.

So yes: if you have credible information that there's an inside candidate, it makes sense not to set your heart on a given job. But that's always good advice: even in the best-case scenario, where you're one of three equally talented and appealing candidates to get a flyback, your odds are still just 1 in 3.

Readers: will you back me up--or does your experience diverge from mine?

Friday, August 23, 2013

Payback time in the footnotes

Proofreading my notes and bibliography and thinking about what I cut or added at the last minute has made me wonder how often the notes in scholarly works are actually a stage (however surreptitious) for personal rather than purely academic in-fighting.

That is, who adds citations just to suck up, curry favor, or show off? And who eliminates citations on the basis of personal grievances?

I will take confessions, dark suspicions, and irresponsible gossip in the comments.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Living through books

As of today, our household has both internet and New York Times delivery. The sabbatical can commence!

Being without internet is a hindrance to research (and not only because it's a hindrance to procrastination-from-research, itself a crucial feature of my every scholarly endeavor), but it turns out to be conducive to reviewing page proofs and indexing one's book. So that's what I've been doing here in our newly set-up office in front of a new window with a new view: re-reading these old old words.

One of my professors once talked about the ways we live with long books, reading them in time with our own lives so the two narratives get tangled up. She mentioned that, for her, Tristram Shandy was inseparable from the spring her sister was dying of cancer.

We've all had a version of that experience, I think--with certain books as with certain albums or songs, which become imprinted with a particular moment or stage of life. Sometimes a later experience overwrites an earlier one and sometimes several can co-exist; many of the texts I teach are a palimpsest of memories of places and spaces and thoughts. (But mostly spaces.)

None of those text-based memories compares to reading my own prose, however, all 90,000-odd words of it, written and rewritten over ten years, as a grad student and a lecturer and a junior professor, at different desks and tables in five different states. There are sentences I vividly recall writing in a lawn chair in my parents' backyard, in a hotel room in Saratoga Springs, on sofas I no longer own and in the apartments of people I no longer date. There are parts of this book that I know in the careless but profound way that I know my own skin.

And there are parts I don't remember writing. Usually those are the more recent bits: portions of the introduction, or sentences here and there linking a local claim to a larger argument. Some of them feel merely functional--a bolt, a screw, a hasty paint job or a well-positioned piece of duct tape. Others strike me as frightfully clever. But they don't feel like anything I wrote.

Actually, in some ways, none of it feels like anything I wrote. I'm not that person with the green sofa or the white one, the person in that city with those shoes, the person who felt those things or thought those thoughts.

I'm glad to have those selves captured and bound up in this book. But once I'm done, I may never read it again.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Technical difficulties

Hola fans and loved ones, and apologies for the interruption in service. We've been moving households, and while I have many fascinating things to say about that--and so much more--we still don't have internet service here in Punchline Rust Belt City. And if you think I'm capable of typing anything longer than this on my phone and not pitching it and self out the window, you are sadly mistaken.

So Imagonna yell at a few more customer service reps and make sixteen more trips to Target, and maybe when I get done the modem light will no longer be blinking an ominous red.

Just don't go and do anything too interesting while I'm away.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Even the troublemakers grow up

This weekend is my 20th high school reunion. Having been pleasantly surprised by my 10th, I was planning on going--but for various reasons I can't. Still, I've been enjoying the Facebook page set up for the reunion and the photos and reminiscences of my classmates. I've also reconnected, in small but meaningful ways, with a few people I hadn't thought about in years.

One of them is a woman I'll call Britomart, a name that approximates her unusual given name. Like her warrior-woman namesake, Britomart came armed for combat. I only had a few classes with her, but I recall her getting into fierce arguments with every teacher we shared. At the same time--at least with her peers--she was warm-hearted, generous, and a real straight-shooter. On our Facebook page another classmate mentioned that in the fourth grade, when she and her best friend were fighting and weren't speaking to one another, Britomart hauled them into the girls' room, yelled at them, and forced them to talk and make up. I didn't go to the same elementary school, but that sounds like the Britomart I knew as a teenager.

I liked Britomart and admired her no-bullshit attitude, but her conflicts with teachers made me uneasy. For one thing, they never seemed to be about anything: some minor change or perceived change in policy or due dates, maybe, or a question on a quiz she perceived as unfair. I can still see the way she'd cross her arms, screw up her face, and bark out an angry objection, halting the class for a tense minute or two. It was particularly uncomfortable in the English classes we shared with my favorite English teacher, an equally fierce but birdlike little woman nearing retirement. I took five or six classes with this teacher and I adored her. She was also spectacularly good to me.

Even at that age, I understood that my teacher felt threatened and disrespected by Britomart, and it troubled me that these two people, each of whom I considered good-hearted and clear-eyed, seemed to hate one other. I didn't know what Britomart's deal was or why she had such a chip on her shoulder, but I also felt that my teacher should have been able to see Britomart's good side. (And maybe she did; but what I saw and felt was the tension between them.)

Being back in touch with Britomart, now that I'm a teacher myself, has made me think harder about those ancient battles. On the one hand, I know what it feels like to be the person whose authority is being challenged, and I recognize myself, proleptically, in my teacher's sharp-tongued reassertions of control. I know how it feels to always have one antenna out, tuned to that problem kid in the corner, forever expecting and dreading that he's going to speak up again and derail the class. But I also knew and liked Britomart then, and I know what she's become: well-grounded and successful, with a family and an emotionally demanding job in the caring professions. Whatever anger she was carrying around then seems to be long gone.

I'm sorry I won't be seeing her this weekend, but I hope I'll remember her the next time I'm tempted to write off a mouthy troublemaker as all problem and no possibility.


And just in case you've forgotten what 1993 looked like, let me remind you:

Tuesday, August 06, 2013


Finally! Somebody validates my every emotional response to everything!

Mark Epstein, writing in the Sunday NYT:
Trauma is not just the result of major disasters. It does not happen to only some people. An undercurrent of trauma runs through ordinary life, shot through as it is with the poignancy of impermanence. I like to say that if we are not suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, we are suffering from pre-traumatic stress disorder.
Every part of this seems right to me: that we bear the marks of past losses and disappointments, however seemingly minor (one-off rejections or misunderstandings or fights that get patched up); that we're also shaped by our anticipated losses; and that, as Epstein goes on to say, "closure," and the desire to impose a timetable upon grief (or even just mild melancholy or nostalgia) are bullshit.

As Epstein writes,
My mother's knee-jerk reaction, "Shouldn’t I be over this by now?" is very common. There is a rush to normal in many of us that closes us off, not only to the depth of our own suffering but also, as a consequence, to the suffering of others.

When disasters strike we may have an immediate empathic response, but underneath we are often conditioned to believe that "normal" is where we all should be.
It's a pity that the word "trauma" is so linked in most people's minds to major disasters. We may be willing to apply the term to private, undramatic sorrows, like the peaceful death of a sick family member--but the death of a pet? the end of a three-month relationship? a negative encounter with your boss? Surely those are the upsetting events of an hour or a week or a month. But trauma only means wound, and those come in all sizes. It's not easy to know in advance what will leave a scar or ache every time the weather turns damp.

But although the past marks us, often permanently, being marked by the past is perfectly compatible with moving on. Sometimes life's traumas leave us in howling, incoherent grief, but not always. Not even usually. And even when they do, that stage passes. But the wound remains, throbbing a bit, tender to the touch, but capable of being forgotten.

Until, suddenly, it isn't.