Tuesday, March 31, 2015


So yeah: a lot of people are interested in moving jobs some day. There's nothing wrong with that. But here's a tip: when someone you barely know asks you--just conversationally--how you like your job at X, your response should not be, "it's a good first job."

Maybe you've absorbed the snobbery of your grad school cohort; maybe you're afraid of your interlocutor's condescension or pity. But I swear to God: I'm not even a job-seeker, and when I hear that I still want to punch you in the face.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Mid-career mobility

In my last post I mentioned one of the ways that the precarious job market affects even tenured and tenure-line faculty; in this post I want to talk about another: mid-career mobility.

Just as many of us were told that there are always jobs for good people or that we'd be fine as long as we went on the market with a couple of publications, many of us were also told that there was such a thing as a first job: that if we weren't happy somewhere (or were perfectly happy for a time, but later wanted new opportunities), we'd be able to move if we were working hard and publishing well. At least, I was told this, and the careers of my grad school professors seemed to bear it out: although a few of the senior faculty were still on their first job, most of them--and usually the most accomplished--were on their third or fourth or fifth.

Now, I'm not expecting the plight of those seeking a second tenure-track job to wring tears from the eyes of those still a long way from that kind of stability. But this affects them, too: the scarcity of jobs means that most grad students and recent PhDs are advised to take any job they get offered--and then "write their way out." Obviously, it's foolish to turn down a decent job in the hope of a better one, but what about the job that sets a candidate's Spidey-sense a-tingle or that seems like it might be unworkable for a single person or a dual-career couple or a minority or LGBT applicant? What is the likelihood of moving elsewhere?

I don't have an answer to that. I do know at least a dozen people who moved before tenure, which leads me to believe that the odds of such a move are decent--but of course the nature of the game is that those who are on the market don't usually advertise it.

The mid-career move is even more of an open question. Just as the contracting job market means many tenure-line jobs are themselves worse than they used to be--fewer TT faculty means a heavier service burden on those who remain, which frequently comes alongside higher course caps and increased teaching loads--it also means mid-career moves are harder to pull off. The two together can lead to the kind of post-tenure malaise that Notorious Ph.D. has blogged about.

I haven't seen many mid-career moves, though it's possible that I'm just too early in my career. Maybe they too are a casualty of the job market, or maybe they're in a temporary lull--or maybe they were never as common as the careers of my grad school professors led me to believe.

Although lots of people at midlife and in midcareer experience some kind of a slump or wonder whether they can bear to be doing the same thing for another 20 or 25 years, most highly-educated professionals can at least move companies or cities, if their specific working conditions are displeasing. In academia, this is rarely possible.

And I think it's the possibility, more than the reality, that matters. I've never yet taken a job that I was eager to leave or one in which I didn't think I could be happy long-term. But I've also never wished to believe that any job was my last job; it's useful to believe that other opportunities lie ahead--and that in a hazy ten years or so, or after the next book or the next, I might make another move.

Whether such an opportunity actually presents itself is less important.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The long goodbye

As you good people are all aware, a year ago I accepted a job at Cosimo's institution--starting, for sabbatical-repayment reasons, in August 2015. But even once I start that job, almost 18 months after acceptance, I won't have fully left my current one. Instead, I'm taking an unpaid leave.

This is partly a pragmatic decision; if the Steven Salaita case has taught academics anything, it's the wisdom of disaster insurance. My own inflammatory opinions are mostly confined to long-dead literary figures and are unlikely to piss off any trustees or Boards of Whatever.* Still, flukey things happen, and in a field with extreme employment precarity, it's better to be on the safe side.

But taking a leave is also about keeping my options open and making sure the move is the right one. In addition to being able to live with my spouse, my new job offers me several things that my current one doesn't, and I'm very much looking forward to those things. But my current job, in turn, has strengths that my new one does not.

This slo-mo, not-quite-letting-go is pretty standard in academia; I know lots of people who have taken leaves rather than resigning outright--some of whom eventually returned, most of whom did not. Still, it probably seems bizarre to people in other industries, and it feels a bit bizarre to me, too. In most areas of life, I'm the kind of person who wants to lock decisions down. I hate endless dithering and lack of closure (which is why so many meetings run by academics drive me insane).

But in most industries, the consequences of an employment slip-up or a bad decision aren't grievous; you just move to a third job or return to your previous employer. When my dad decided to return, after a year of working for my uncle, to the government job he'd held for more than a decade, he could do it. He was docked a GS rank (which he later regained), but he could do it.

Academia is different, and it's only gotten worse. Though I don't have many qualms about the broader effects of my delayed start at one job and delayed resignation from another (it's unlikely that my department would be able to replace me immediately, so I'm not "keeping" a position from a needy job-seeker) I don't have none; the security that allows me to try on a new job risk-free is exactly what's unavailable to most academics today.

However, it's that broader lack of security that makes those of us who have it cling to it. Jobs are so scarce that any screw-up, whether personal or institutional, can have devastating consequences, and no one is immune. These days it's not uncommon for junior faculty in very prestigious positions to have had only that one offer, after years on the market, and to have been a minute away from leaving the profession. Even extremely talented people who get denied tenure often can't find another job, and those who leave the tenure track can rarely get back on it.

I'm thankful that both institutions have been flexible enough to let me make a decision I'm comfortable with, in a way I'm comfortable with, and no larger good would be served by my hastening to closure. But the security from which I make that decision is a privilege. I wish there were more of it to go around.

*Since you asked: the Romantic poetics are goddamn whiny, navel-gazing tree-huggers! (Except Byron; Byron's all right.)

Sunday, March 15, 2015


One of the difficult things about the early stages of one's career is never being sure how much you should be doing, what's normal, what's possible. This is one--though certainly not the only!--reason that academics feel they're never working hard enough and are haunted by vague feelings of guilt and idleness and shame.

In my experience, those feelings lessen after a while: you learn the rhythms of your job and your life, when you work best, what's normal and possible for you--and also you clear certain hurdles (reappointment, tenure, book publication, whatever). Now that I'm nearly a decade post-degree, I can also better identify the outliers.

In grad school, this is almost impossible. You don't know if the person who completes all his seminar papers early and his dissertation in five years is brilliant, disciplined, facile--or just really well prepared for graduate work. And your job-market competitor who has three articles to your one may have many more publications by percentage--but only two more publications, numerically. It's hard to know how to read that kind of data.

Things are a little clearer now. That person who already has fifteen articles when even her more serious peers have half that? Who has a third book out before most people have a second? She's working at a totally different level. And that's a relief to know. If I assumed her to be the norm, I might feel shitty about myself. But understanding her to be the scholarly equivalent of a fashion model--exceptional, admirable, even aspirational in some respects, but not a standard any sane person would expect me to meet--frees me to feel good about what I can do.

Although the conditions of one's employment certainly affect what's possible, there are outliers up and down the academic food chain. Any job that has some research expectations and gives research some time and some support is going to see a wide range of outcomes. Moreover, there are people at middling institutions who are outliers not just for that institution or their professional circumstances, but for their career cohort. I know people at institutions like my own who are dramatically outpublishing their peers with fancier jobs.

And here's where I say something a little controversial: while acknowledging both that professional circumstances shape what's possible and that most people's productivity ebbs and flows over the course of a career, I think that, on average, we work at the rates we work at. I do not seriously believe that if I had an R1 job my output would look materially different. Maybe I'd publish an additional article every two or three years or my books would come out slightly faster, but I don't believe the fundamental pace of my thinking and writing would change.

I like to believe that I would do just fine at a fancier job, but I have no illusions that suddenly I'd be able to publish a book every five years; even the outliers at R1s are lucky to do that, and if I'm not an outlier at my current institution, there's no reason to think I would be at another.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Now this is touching the future

Apparently I've been at this job long enough that not only are my former students marrying other former students, but they're opening their own cocktail bars.

Cha-Cha City has a modest wealth of appealing bars and restaurants, but not so many that there aren't dead spots in the week--nights when it seems like everything is either closed or shuts up early--and what with family schedules and teaching nights, my colleagues and I have struggled to find an appealing midweek standby. So we gave our old student's new place a whirl: to support an alum, try something different, and maybe add it to the rotation.

And oh, it's added. This bar is one straight-up, nerd-cool, English-major fantasy.

Every bar should  have a rolling library ladder

I don't know what other professors fantasize about their students doing with their lives; I mostly just want mine to be happy and secure members of the middle class (who hopefully still derive pleasure from books and movies and plays). But if I had a self-serving fantasy, one that made me feel good about myself and my proximity to talent, it wouldn't be for my students to go on to get PhDs themselves or write critically-acclaimed novels or work for the New York Times or get elected to the Senate. It would be for them to do something very much like this.

One of the pleasures of teaching at a regional institution is contributing to that region in a sustained and multi-layered way. My students teach in the urban and suburban school districts. They fix up old houses, work at local nonprofits, open their own businesses. Those are their achievements, not mine--but they benefit me. They make the place I live better. They enmesh me in a meaningful network of connections.

I may not be from here, or staying here, or have roots much of anywhere. But part of putting down roots in a place is knowing and supporting those who do.

Friday, March 06, 2015

Nothing perishes

So maybe the first thing to say about turning 40 is that I got a tattoo.

Not, like, across my forehead--but not tiny and not in a super-discreet location: capable of being concealed by professional wear (and in my currently northerly clime for up to seven months of the year regardless of what I'm wearing), but otherwise pretty visible. That was kind of the point.

I didn't get the tattoo for my fortieth, exactly; I'd been contemplating it for more than a year and my birthday just provided a convenient milestone. Still, getting a tattoo at all, and getting this one in particular, is intimately connected to my sense of aging and my desire to keep faith with my past selves as I move on to whatever I do move on to.

Anyone who's been reading this blog for any length of time will recognize that making sense of the past and unraveling the relationship between history and identity--whether personal or collective--is my only real interest, the thing that drives pretty much everything I do; indeed, twenty-five years' worth of journals and letters show that this is far from a recent obsession. (If I'm constant in anything, it may be in my search for continuity and my fear of finding it wanting.)

So I guess my tattoo is another reminder of who I am and what I value, a way of both staking myself to a moment in time and acknowledging the unknown. I'm not afraid to see the image change as my body also changes.

That, too, is kind of the point.