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:


Deleuze & Guattari

The lyric


The Bishops War

Oral culture



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.