Sunday, August 23, 2015


I've oriented. I've retreated. And I've moved the contents of twenty boxes of books onto my office shelves, pounded a bunch of holes in the walls, and taped little postcards of monarchs and manuscripts to my door.

I'm ready! Mostly.

It's a weird thing, starting my third full-time teaching job on what is more or less the tenth anniversary of completing my dissertation. All three jobs have been at public universities whose student body skews first-generation, with a lot of transfer students, a lot of commuters, and a lot of students with busy and complicated lives.

I like teaching this student population, and I liked it almost from the moment I started that first job--though I had no prior experience with it and there's no reason anyone looking at my job-market materials would have thought I'd be any good at it (and plenty of reasons to assume I'd be bad at it). I had three degrees from the same Ivy. I'd written a dissertation on minor, esoteric material. I didn't have much teaching experience. I couldn't even claim to be a first-gen kid myself.

I guess what I'm saying is: it's impossible to guess what a job candidate will be good at if he or she hasn't done it yet.

That doesn't mean that every teacher will be good with every student population, given enough time, nor does it mean that search committees should take a candidate's abilities on faith (if I were interviewing 30-year-old Flavia for 40-year-old Flavia's job, she probably would not be at the top of my list).

But both search committees and candidates can have failures of imagination. Looking back at my two initial runs at the job market, I remember not being able to envision myself in the more elite places--but I knew those were the jobs I was supposed to want, and I was duly disappointed when I didn't get interviews with them. However, at that stage I truly had no interest in designing specialized upper-division seminars or working with doctoral students; what excited me was the idea of teaching the Brit Lit I survey to both majors and non-majors. The most gratifying part of teaching, for me, was the demystification: figuring out how to break down a high-level task down into its component skills or giving students avenues into genres (like poetry) or authors (like Milton) who previously seemed intimidating or irrelevant.

I'm sure those skills would have come in handy anywhere I wound up. But they were an especially good match for the places I did wind up--places I didn't fully know existed, and whose specific pleasures I certainly couldn't have imagined.

I don't know if our prior jobs track us for our future ones. But I'm pretty sure the way I used to get read isn't how I get read now.


Historiann said...

When I first saw the subject and title of your post on Twitter, I thought the tone might be mournful, but I was wrong. (At least, I think you're proud to be seen as someone who can work with the student population you describe, rather than elite students only!)

Your post is testimony for why schools like ours shouldn't pre-reject applicants for faculty positions because they're all- or mostly-Ivy Leaguers themselves. When I first came to Baa Ram U., people would say things to me like, "Oh, you'll like her, Historiann--she went to fancy private schools like you." That assumption kind of hurt, but I understood that it wasn't personal--but that's not at all how I approach job candidates. Not at all. I still hear conversations in meetings and in the hallways wondering "will she stay?" and "will he be happy here?" esp. about Ivy-prep candidates, but the evidence from my department demonstrates that we shouldn't try to predict the future for our potential colleagues.

The fact of the matter is that we've lots loads of colleagues, not one of whom has an Ivy-league degree! We've lost excellent colleagues with Ph.D.s from Utah, UC Riverside, Ohio State, Georgia Tech, and Chicago, whereas our faculty retains those of us who went to Princeton, Yale, and Penn. Go figure.

Historiann said...

Oops--the first line of the last graph should read, "we've LOST loads of colleagues. . . "

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I attended a VSLAC (very small LAC) as an undergrad, so I thought I'd want to end up at one. HU is a SLAC that really wants to be a STEM-focused university with only a passing interest in Liberal Arts. I feel a little betrayed by my own assumptions -- that all small colleges will be interested in liberal arts. I was so wrong.

I found that my best college experience (during my masters) was actually at a state university that had a student body of about 10,000, and had essentially open enrollment for undergrads with a lot of first gen students. It sounds like that's the kind of place you're going to (although, I'm not sure about the selectivity of enrollment). The thing that strikes me as compelling about the uni I'm talking about, though, is that the professors (a few of whom I've reconnected with) are pretty happy with the administration and their support for liberal arts. It's not perfect, as they have told me (the town is pretty awful), but the school itself is solidly good to the English department -- supportive of research, a reasonable teaching load, and a big department with some overlap so students can have more than one Shakespeare prof, for instance. That is the kind of place I'd like to be. Talk about isolation? It's really hard being the only person in your department who knows anything, let alone very much, about Shakespeare. I have no one to talk to in my department about my narrrow interests. It's depressing. (But that's why I go to things like SAA and other conferences. And also a good reason to blog!)

Anyway - it sounds like you're going to be happy at the new place. It's exciting! Congrats!

Flavia said...


Oh yes, definitely very happy! I should emphasize that don't have anything negative to say about the students I taught at my Ivy alma mater; they were great, and by no means the entitled/jerky/sheltered/fragile whatevers they often get caricatured as. Teaching them was rewarding.

But. . . not as rewarding, or just plain fun, for me, as the students I teach now. And on some level, I think anyone can teach super-elite students (or at least that there would be nothing specifically better about my teaching them than anyone else with my background and training teaching them--I bring nothing exceptional, no value-added). Whereas I do think there's some value-added to my teaching the students I teach now, and that I'm a better fit for it than some people with my profile.



And/but yes, it's so true that every school is different--even within the same category, the values of any given institution (sometimes set by administrators, but also individual departments) can be really unpredictable. I have friends at terrific, vibrant 4/4s where the liberal arts are really valued...and I have friends at much fancier schools that are toxic and cynical cesspools, where both teaching and scholarship are devalued.

Bardiac said...

Having been educated at a fair variety of public institutions, I never have the sense that any of them discriminated against Ivy grads. Of the four institutions I attended, only the community college didn't have Ivy folks as TT faculty (that I knew of, anyway).

I wonder if your sense of the Ivies is that they don't discriminate against public school students either in accepting for grad programs or hiring for TT jobs?

Doctor Cleveland said...

Hi Bardiac,

Could you make it clear, for the rest of us, with whom you're picking a fight? Is it Flavia or Historiann?

It's hard to tell, especially since you're using a highly charged word, "discriminate," that neither Flavia nor Historiann used? It would the rest of us if you would clarify whose post/comment you believe raised a charge of discrimination. Because I didn't see it,

Flavia said...


I don't think anyone is talking about discrimination here.

What I, at least, am talking about are the presumptions that we all tend to make about all candidates based on their background (whatever it is) and their experience (or lack thereof). And at least when it comes to experience, those presumptions aren't even wrong, exactly: as I say above, it's perfectly fair to wonder whether someone who's never done X would be good at X. (It's less fair to wonder, as in Historiann's example, whether a particular person would be happy at a particular institution, since that involves importing a whole lot of assumptions that aren't based on anything other than what we think we know about "people like them"--people of their class, race, sexuality, marital status, or just "type.")

And yes, of course: the presumptions people make about those from public institutions are far more consequential. No one is disputing that point.

But that doesn't mean there are none operating in the other direction, as Historiann notes; I've certainly been asked in MLA interviews whether I'd "even be able to relate to" students like those at the interviewers' school--and less blunt versions of the same thing. That's not "discrimination" and I'm not asking anyone to shed a tear for me. I'm just reflecting on how relatively quickly one's profile, and the presumptions attached to it, can change.

Bardiac said...

Dr. Cleveland, I wasn't trying to pick a fight, though I wasn't as careful of my language as I probably should have been.

Flavia, Thanks, I understand what you mean better now.

Contingent Cassandra said...

As another holder of several ivy-encrusted degrees, I *think* I've encountered some of the "can she do the job/will she stay?" skepticism on the tenure-track job market that h'ann mentions (though never when applying for adjunct work; adjunct hiring is all about basic competency, and my first TA job was an English 101-equivalent, so I'd cleared that bar, at least well enough that a number of chairs, come midsummer, were willing to take the gamble that I could handle students at their somewhat-less-selective-but-still-selective schools). Experiencing that skepticism (which included one committee pointing out, at a convention interview, that my letters emphasized my research potential,and asking if I'd be happy at their teaching-oriented institution), combined with my observation of tenured faculty at the institutions I attended (who included a good many Ivy Ph.D.s, but also a good many grads of highly-ranked public institutions, plus a few with meandering, wild-card professional/educational journeys) has led me to think that a Ph.D. program at a highly-ranked flagship state u with strong mentoring in both research and teaching probably opens doors to the largest possible number of jobs, at least straight out of grad school. But I have no idea if I'm right; this could be a grass-is-greener reaction (similar/parallel to the suspicion that some flagship state u grads have that all the jobs are going to Ivy Ph.D.s, which probably also represents a mix of accurate observation -- some places will hire ivy grads if they can get them, even if there's good reason to think the person is not actually a good fit -- and grass-is-greener thinking in what everyone can agree is, and has been for some time, a really bad academic job market).

And none of the above really addresses your main point, Flavia, which is what qualifies people of various educational and other backgrounds to successfully teach students from an equally wide range of educational and other backgrounds. It's pretty hard to tell with a newly-minted Ph.D., I'm pretty sure, all the more so if (s)he went pretty much straight through school without gaps or detours. It gets easier as someone's career progresses, but I'm inclined to think that many of us are more flexible than potential employers (in a market that is admittedly difficult for potential employers, too; in many places, losing a new hire or tenure case can mean losing the line, which makes everybody extra-cautious) assume.

Flavia said...


My suspicions tend to be yours--that those with degrees from the best state flagships probably have the widest range of options out of the gate--though like you I have a healthy amount of skeptical about whether this is actually true or just a fantasy-projection; so much in this sphere is merely anecdotal or about individual (or collective) presumptions, prejudices, and fears.

No doubt, some departments want to do as Bardiac suggests, and prioritize people with the best name-brand degree; and no doubt, some departments rule out the fanciest candidates because they fear losing them and/or their not being a good fit. But it's hard to say that either behavior is broadly true of any "type" of department.