December
31st 2008
MLA wrap-up: the job candidates talk back

Posted under: conferences, jobs

Rate Your Students has posted some concluding thoughts on the job interviewing scene from the perspective of the job candidates.  Here’s one that represents a range of viewpoints, from “Three interviews and each one was friendly and just like talking to friends. I’m stoked for the future,” to “This is how it works? I felt like a piece of meat – and not in a good way.”  (Is there ever a good way to feel like meat?  Special tip for the Meatman:  showing up on time for your interview and not an hour late sure helps start things off on the right foot, doesn’t it?)

And, you knew this was coming, didn’t you?  “Diaper Dave” wrote in to justify the behavior of most of the ten boneheaded candidates from yesterday’s post.  I’m pretty sure Dave is a senior faculty member posing as a young turk jerk.  Just a guess–I could be wrong.  Tell me:  do you think he’s sincere?

15 Comments »

15 Responses to “MLA wrap-up: the job candidates talk back”

  1. Notorious Ph.D. on 31 Dec 2008 at 9:47 am #

    A agree with your analysis of Dave. Now, here’s the one that got to me:

    I met some nice people, but woefully unambitious. One school had a committee made up of people all in their 50s or above. Nobody had taught anywhere else. It’s not some garden spot either where they live. Why are they still there? I can understand someone like me going there. But do they really not want something better?

    (disclaimer: I have a second-year colleague who reminds me of this)

    I think this is something you can only really begin to understand when you’re on the two years on either side of that assistant-to-associate transition, understanding that you just may be in it for the long haul. You may have gone into a job thinking of it as a “first job”, only to find that after having put in some effort to make a life there, you’re reluctant to start over. Perhaps your big ambitions (“I’ll have my book off to publishers by the beginning of year four”) didn’t pan out, and you’re not as marketable as you once thought. Perhaps your marketable years coincide with craptacular job markets. Or maybe you realize that the fact that your department is generally collegial and devoid of Toxic Tommys is something that you would never know about another job until it was too late. Maybe you fell in love with someone who couldn’t relocate. Or maybe the place turned out to be a hidden treasure.

    Whatever. Job candidates like this, you have no idea why the people in front of you stayed where they were planted. Calling them “unambitious” is not only insulting to them, it’s also a transparent display of your own fear and insecurity (“This would never happen to me… because unlike them, I am ambitious!”). It’s unpleasant. Please knock it off.

    (Am I becoming an old fart? Already?)

  2. Historiann on 31 Dec 2008 at 10:53 am #

    Welcome to Old Fartdom, Notorious! (Or, if you prefer, Young Fogeydom.)

    I had the same reaction that you had. In my experience, the number one factor in dividing the people who move around versus people who don’t is portability, rather than talent or professional success. I moved–once–to save my professional life, but my family situation 8 years ago was such that I could do it easily. Now 8 years on, it would be much more difficult. People have spouses who have jobs they enjoy, they have kids and the kids are in good schools and have friends, and after several years you become part of a community. Perhaps that looks like a lack of ambition to some, but to others it looks like a balanced, nourishing life.

    The colleagues who have left Baa Ram U. in my years have all been successful, but they weren’t necessarily the MOST successful–they were just the least attached family-wise and so could move on without as much of a hassle.

  3. Historiann on 31 Dec 2008 at 10:59 am #

    Oh, yeah–and the ageism, too, as if 50 is a rubicon to irrelevance. People in their 50s tend to have established lives in the community, and if they have children, those children are still hanging around as teenagers usually.

  4. Dr. Crazy on 31 Dec 2008 at 11:22 am #

    I agree about portability being a huge factor. The other factor is that it’s *really, really hard to move* in English these days. I’m in one of the most saturated fields (only my colleagues doing 20th C. Am. Lit have it worse, as far as I can tell) and whatever my ambitions, moving just isn’t likely. So the options, once I realized that, were either to make myself happy in my current gig (which has great colleagues, etc.) or to be a miserable person. The fantasy that one can just pick up and get another job to pursue one’s ambitions in a field like English just seems bizarre to me. And what’s crazier about that post by Dave is that it refers to a whole kerfuffle that happened when I posted on my blog about daring to send out job applications, as if that is in any way linked to his bizarre perspective on the market.

    I really, really am not a huge fan of RYS. I know it’s supposed to be all edgy and darkly funny and stuff, but more often than not I find myself feeling yucky after I read the stuff over there. I feel like everybody comes away looking bad (faculty, students, grad students, just everybody) in what gets posted over there. That said, maybe my attitude is shaped by the fact that they’ve targeted me at least two or three times and used my blog as fodder for their bile.

  5. Historiann on 31 Dec 2008 at 11:40 am #

    Dr. Crazy–I forgot about your run-in with the RYS crowd. That was unfair to you, and unpleasant.

    I file most of what they publish under “guilty pleasure.” I don’t take it too seriously–but then, they haven’t bullied me (yet). Maybe it’s more amusing to me, too, because I once worked in an extremely dysfunctional department with very damaged people, so I recognize some of the faculty types depicted in their commentaries. (I also still carry some anger from that experience, even though I’ve now been away from it twice as long as I lived with it, so there’s probably some residual aggression in me that enjoys the aggression of RYS.)

    You’re very fortunate to have found a department where you can thrive and work effectively with your colleagues. Even though you’re doing it with a 4-4 load, that’s something people really can’t take for granted. And most people (attached or not) eventually want to settle down and make a life. Renting a succession of crappy temporary apartments gets depressing once you’re in your 30s or 40s.

  6. John S. on 31 Dec 2008 at 11:57 am #

    This is one of the things I hate most about the job-seeking process, on both ends. My wife missed out on more than one job because the search committee assumed that, as an Ivy-League PhD, she’d hop off to another job ASAP. (They told her as much in one place, and strongly hinted it at another.) Never mind that she had to apply for 120 jobs in 20thc US History to get one offer. They were just ignorant of the situation, much as someone outside Dr. Crazy’s discipline might not know why moving in that field can be impossible.

    Nor can this be separated from the sexism married women in particular face. My wife was also asked about her husband at multiple on-campus interviews, and was told straight out by a search committee member at another school that she was eliminated from the pool because they knew she was married to me and that my career would always come first. So they skipped past the part of asking her about the spouse, and went straight to inviting her in for a meaningless job talk. You can imagine how thrilling it was when I heard that story.

    Candidates don’t know why search committee members stay at jobs; neither do search committees know why candidates are considering leaving. I have been astonished at the number of times I have heard members of my own department try to factor a candidate’s personal life into the equation when we talk about whom we should hire. (And yes, they do this more often with women–surprise!) I don’t know why anyone should assume they *really* know what’s going on in someone else’s life.

  7. Historiann on 31 Dec 2008 at 12:13 pm #

    Amen, John S. You’re absolutely correct–there is no way a hiring department can know what’s going on in their candidates’ personal or professional lives. I’ve seen this in departmental discussions too, although for the most part it’s been gender-neutral. It all boils down to a “but will he/she come?” and “will he/she stay with us,” which to my mind is pointless crystal-ball guessing. Departments should offer the job to the candidate/s they think have the most interesting work and are best suited for the position, and let the candidates decide “if they will come” and “if they will stay.”

    It’s the hiring department’s job to make itself appealing to job candidates, and to make it a good place for people to stay and build their careers. “Build it, and they will come,” and many will stay!

  8. Indyanna on 31 Dec 2008 at 12:26 pm #

    Yeah, as Notorious notes, Dave is probably projecting his own anxieties, trying to convince himself “that would never happen to ME…. would it?” Inferring “ambition” from whether or not people are “still there” rather than from the questions they asked, or maybe even looking at their c.v.’s is just callow. And arguably it’s even an indication of the shallowness of (pre)professional socialization that goes on in a lot of grad. programs.

    That said, sometimes a cigar is really a cigar, and a lack of some sort of overt signs of ambition would be pretty unnerving to a candidate. When a cohort of people simultaneously cave to the norm of institutional expectations about “not being a research-U” it’s not good for them, and a bad example for recruits. When I arrived for an on-campus visit some years back the search chair met my airport van. After asking if I had $5 to tip the van driver, as he hadn’t gotten to an ATM that Sunday!!, he walked me toward the on-campus No-tel room they used to put up candidates. He said “I just published a thin little book” (it *was* thin), but, sigh, “you’ll get tired fast with the teaching load here.” He was not wrong about that, and I did get the $5 back, but the hunger for print seems to grow with the years. There are ways of juggling obstacle and opportunity.

    Historiann’s broaching of the ageism question offers an opportunity to note that the AHA has just “momentarily unretired” (an odd, and I thought unfortunate, figure of speech) its 12-year old condemnation of age discrimination in hiring. I’m heading up in the general direction of their meeting tomorrow to see what’s going on. But not going near the job bin. I’ll file a report if anything eggregiously or unseemly interesting seems to be afoot.

  9. JJO on 31 Dec 2008 at 12:53 pm #

    I’ve been very lucky in that I landed in a remarkably sane and humane department that is also a place where serious research can and does get done. I don’t have Historiann’s contrasting experience (and I hope I never do!), but I can definitely reiterate that a functional, collegial department is not something to take for granted or to abandon lightly.

    One of the major aspects of that sanity was the leadership of senior colleagues on job searches, who always reiterated that we “don’t play God” — that is, we can’t know everyone’s motivation or long term plans, so the best we can do for us and for them is to judge them fairly by their academic work and credentials, what they tell us about their goals and desires, and what their performance in interviews/campus visits suggests about their potential as a scholar and colleague. In general this has served us really, really well, resulting in several hires of people in odd situations (a tenured prof at a SLAC applying for a tenure track job with us, e.g.) that worked out fabulously.

    Of course there’s always speculation about candidates’ personal lives and their long-term plans — just as candidates imagine what it would be like to work and live somewhere, department members imagine what it would be like to have this person as a colleague, potential friend, and member of a community. But letting that (often inaccurate) speculation guide your hiring seems deeply counterproductive, and I think (hope) we’ve been good about understanding the distinction there.

  10. JJO on 31 Dec 2008 at 1:17 pm #

    Sorry — the above may sound excessively self-congratulatory; it was brought on by too much reading of RYS, which really probably isn’t good for you. But seriously, where the f#@k do they find these people?

  11. Historiann on 31 Dec 2008 at 1:38 pm #

    JJO–you don’t sound self-congratulatory, you sound appropriately humble and appreciative! And, I’m sure it’s what you would wish for everyone (as do I.)

    Good point about the leadership–senior faculty (or “dead wood” according to the Diaper Daves) are enormously influential, and they shouldn’t ignore that fact. They set the tone–for good or for ill–and Indyanna’s comment (and long-suffering experience!) makes it clear how important they are.

    So, JJO, do you think Dave is a joke? It sounds like you might be leaning my way on this.

  12. Matt L on 31 Dec 2008 at 2:19 pm #

    Diaper Dave has to be a joke. I am not sure if its someone senior pretending to be the sweet young thing, but clearly most of the post is just ornery and contrarian. Seriously, there is no reason to ask what time zone a school is in. Thats pretty basic homework, easily done through the tubes on the internets.

    As to why people stay in a job, it seems obvious… because they are so hard to get! Lateral or upward movement is a near impossibility. I personally know of only one person who managed to write and publish her/his way out of “hole in the wall U” in the South East and into a prestigious tenure track job. Sure, I entertain vague fantasies of moving from the 4/4 teaching job I hold now into a 2/2 at ‘distant research one University’ but its not gonna happen. Please compare this with the job mobility experiences of Doctors, Lawyers and computer engineers.

    Ambition is relative. My ambition is to try and publish some worthwhile articles that will advance the work in my cranky, parochial, subfield. I also want to be a superior teacher, so my students learn and retain more. Other people want to get out there and publish those monographs. More power to them.

  13. JJO on 31 Dec 2008 at 2:42 pm #

    I think it’s probably a put-on. Some of the things (like the literary magazine issue) could be real, but defending eating in the interview as not even remotely problematic?

  14. Historiann on 31 Dec 2008 at 4:44 pm #

    Matt L.–yes. Ambition is relative. I think Dave must be a joke–either that, or he suffers from a flabbergasting lack of imagination about other people’s lives. Jobs are hard to get, and hard to keep in some cases. If “Dave” is real, he should hope to holy heck that he gets a job this year–because if he doesn’t, it doesn’t look good in the near future.

    One other thing his diatribe doens’t seem to be aware of: the freeze on jobs from the early 1970s to the early 1990s. If these folks are in their 50s, that meanst that they would have finished grad school 20-25 years ago, in the midst of that massive job ice age. It seems to me that those of us who benefited from better job search years (the late 1990s and early 2000s were sweet, my friends!) owe people of that “lost generation” even more respect. They’re the survivors of an even more brutally darwinian job market.

    We’re not worthy.

  15. Indyanna on 31 Dec 2008 at 4:45 pm #

    Lateral or diagonal mobility is hard to impossible partly because of tenure, of course. When the Broncos see a wide receiver out there they like better than their current one they cut the dude and work the wires for the replacement. This is considerably less feasible with a geomorphologist, say, even pre-tenure. So I suppose in that sense it’s partly a trade-off that we could not give up lightly. Academic fields are highly sub-specialized, and most institutions only have at most one in any given area. But what are some of the other reasons, does anybody think? It would be worth a massively-parallel processing dialogue here to unearth some more of the underlying dynamics.