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So the MLA job list is out. Totally not on the market, myself, thank god… just spectating and for-statisical-purposes-only looking. I wouldn’t be happy if I were going out this year – I’d imagine that there are half or a third of the jobs available vs. the year when I first went out, and  maybe only one that I’d have been relatively happy to have. Of course there’s still more to come, but what do people think? How’s it look to you?

Just to explain, for people who aren’t in the business: the MLA job list, which contains almost every job that will be available during the coming year in language and literature departments in North America, comes out once a year, today actually. The process is incredibly long, getting an academic job in literature – the listings that arrived today won’t be filled until late January at the very earliest. Gruelling, it is. You spend the summer preparing your stack of job materials (CV, writing sample, dissertation description, teaching statement), send off and wait. Later, you might be asked for another writing sample. If you’re lucky, sometime in November or so will invite you to an interview at the conference (this year, like almost every year it seems, it’s in Philadelphia. I’ve already been to two in that city.) After that, three or four people will be asked to visit the campus, give a talk, meet with students and potential colleagues, and go out for a few awkward dinners. Then, after all of that, you wait for the department to get its act together, schedule a meeting and vote (in most cases – some place do the actual deciding part differently).

So much more complicated and arduous than the process in the UK, where you get a stack of apps, read them, a committee argues out four to bring in, then you interview them serially and make a call within an hour. Doesn’t take much more than a month, listing to filling. But that’s what America gets for being a great big country full of land-grant universities, I guess. And I’ll cop to preferring the campus visit, in the end. It is strange, passing strange, to be offered a job without having met your future colleagues in any scenario other than the gladiatorial contest of the interview. *

Nothing remarkably incisive to say about all of this beyond the capsule rendition of how it works. It is an engine of professionalization, though. American job candidates, almost all of them, spend an entire year focused almost exclusively on this sort of thing – well, save for any teaching they might be doing, and frantic nighttime dissertation finishing. You enter into your first year on the market a kid who likes to read and write; you exit a fully fledged professional academic. Don’t get me wrong – there are good and bad things both about this sort of professionalization. But it is something to note, and perhaps something worth thinking and writing about a bit more, what effect the rhythm of the market has on intellectual life in the academy. Of course it’s always present, informing the decisions that people make about their work etc. But it becomes profoundly present, definitive, in bursts. There the struggle to get into a PhD program, and then relative calm for a few years. Then a frantic burst of market-awareness, then a bit of calm (at least on that front) as you start your job. Then the tenuring process, and after that, if you’ve made it, calm again… until you decide to look for another job… Goes on and on. **

Anyway, here’s Berryman, in a not very successful Dream Song, on the MLA…. Happy hunting to those that are!

* Coetzee actually writes up, quite accurately, the differences between the UK (SA imitating the UK, in this case) and the US style of English department hiring in Summertime, fyi. Wish I had time to type it all in, but not just this minute, as I have my own job to keep.

** Please note: I am fully aware that I am describing only one sort of track through the field, and that there are other tracks. Not everyone, or even most, don’t end up in a straightforward PhD to tenure track to tenure line.

Written by adswithoutproducts

September 17, 2009 at 11:21 am

Posted in academia

11 Responses

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  1. You don’t see banners like that in the US, that’s for sure. They’d probably start throwing fits about it at town hall meetings…

    Fourth Night

    September 17, 2009 at 5:17 pm

  2. What, you don’t want to drop everything and come out to Baylor? Or Cincin? 🙂

    Wish me luck with women’s studies, cause that’s actually where my shining hopes are right now!

    Sisyphus

    September 17, 2009 at 6:25 pm

  3. i can understand the point of the campus visit but my god it sounds like hard work. as does the MLA. though i wouldn’t know as i never even got an interview despite filling out about 15 or so American job applications.

    One of the parts of the cycle you missed out (not sure if it’s the same in the US) is having to juggle the market awareness with a different kind of market awareness – working out which places might need teaching relief, and frantically scraping every barrell possible for teaching ‘work’ (for which read, experience…) as a postdoc. and weighing up the merits of a job application that is likely to take about 4 hours against doing teaching preparation for said ad-hoc work and/or research.

    the coetzee bit about interviews is very good.

    shake

    September 18, 2009 at 8:29 pm

  4. It is hard work, shake. But on the other hand, since you’re potentially hiring someone for life, it does seem worth putting in a bit more than an hour to sort out who’s who.

    Yes, the US is just like that though in terms of the other things to sort out / be aware of. I was lucky. When my fellowship ran out, I did a year of half-time teaching at the place where I was getting my PhD, and then fortunately got a tt job right after that. So I’ve never really had to play the short-term / casual market.

    I almost posted the coetzee bit. Perhaps I will if I get a minute.

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    September 18, 2009 at 10:25 pm

  5. But then, the interview plus couple of hours deliberation is largely the model used to recruit for the majority of different jobs and I’m not sure why academia should be any different. After all, while further social contact may lead interviewers and interviewed to a greater knowledge of each other, it seems to me that academia is almost uniquely uncollaborative among the major professions. Sure, people co-author, organize, network, but they largely research, write and teach alone. As such should chatter over informal dinners pay any significant part in the decision? What will it tell the recruiters that they need to know? What will it tell them about the subject’s ability to research, write and teach alone?

    I would bet it largely functions negatively, as a drawn-out test in which the interviewers have plenty of time to wait for a faux pas or two — some slight political gaffe, an odd critical foible which puts them off the candidate; later more solidly professional reasons will be found to justify mild prejudices formed in the mro relaxed environment, and be voiced in committee.

    The other question is resources of time and energy for all concerned. Sure, you’d lke to think you could spare a day vetting someone you’re going to give a job they may do for tenty years. But you also have to spend the same time on the 5 people you’re *not* going to give it to. And for the interviewees, undergoing that kind of long assessment, especially more than a few times, can be utterly draining of energy and confidence.

    anon

    September 19, 2009 at 12:44 pm

  6. But then, the interview plus couple of hours deliberation is largely the model used to recruit for the majority of different jobs and I’m not sure why academia should be any different.

    Ah, but the difference is job security. Awfully hard, at least at various points, to shake someone out if they’re a bad seed. I likely have a job for life, and may well stay for life. (Department secretary assured me again at a party the other night that I shouldn’t be losing sleep about probabation… I kept answering “But I’m American – that’s why I worry!” Rougher system over there.) One hour + writing sample read through was very little to base such a profound decision on.

    it seems to me that academia is almost uniquely uncollaborative among the major professions.

    Sorta. Really does depend. This is definitely not the case where I teach currently, where I am constantly working with others. And even still, the point’s not just to assess “collegiality” (which is a perilous word – again, there’s a good version and a bad version) but teaching skills, which there is literally no other way to gauge accurately other than through chatting with someone, and even then – a bar stool’s not a classroom.

    I would bet it largely functions negatively, as a drawn-out test in which the interviewers have plenty of time to wait for a faux pas or two — some slight political gaffe, an odd critical foible which puts them off the candidate

    In my experience, that’s not what one’s looking for. I’m sure it happens, but it’s not really a litmus test, not in that way.

    later more solidly professional reasons will be found to justify mild prejudices formed in the mro relaxed environment, and be voiced in committee.

    It’s actually easier to do this with the work. You look like a big dick saying “ah, but he held his fork wrong at dinner” etc. Whereas if you find a hint of trouble with the writing, you can go a long long way with it.

    The other question is resources of time and energy for all concerned.

    That’s true. I ducked out of a place recently just as it was about to do something like 4 simultaneous searches. It would have been dinners / job talks literally all the time.

    Look. I am sure that I am biased, as I’m a very good interviewee / on-campus visitor. Even just statisically speaking, I way overshoot the odds once I get to the face to face part of the deal. But on the other hand, I’m a very good teacher too, and there’s literally no way that this could have been figured out from the papers that I submitted, and even the interview room is too fast and high-scholarly to do it. There are drawbacks. One could simply be sort of swarmy in the on-campus, and then not give two shits about the classroom or the students. So it’s obviously not fool-proof. Just think it’s a big and hard decision, and more information is better than less.

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    September 19, 2009 at 6:26 pm

  7. When my fellowship ran out, I did a year of half-time teaching at the place where I was getting my PhD, and then fortunately got a tt job right after that. So I’ve never really had to play the short-term / casual market.

    ah, that’s good – I wasn’t in it for too long either. Now I’m just about on ther other side, I can’t see a way out of this system, either, which is a bit annoying. If there was some way to get postdocs looking for Visiting Lecturer jobs in some sort of database, that might help – as it stands now you rely on people you know suggesting you to their friends at other institutions. a perfect course could pass you by completely purely because you don’t happen to know the person who’s been handed the task of filling the gap.

    One hour + writing sample read through was very little to base such a profound decision on.

    There are references too, aren’t there? Again, not much, but you never know. From what little experience I have, these things are more important in academic jobs than in other industries.

    I likely have a job for life, and may well stay for life.

    this is true for other industries too, isn’t it? I guess the culture of academia is a bit different. if you’re a lawyer in london, theoretically you could stay at your first firm all your life but it’s not recommended, and there are usually lots of opportunities if you live in a relatively big town. Which is different from academia where the culture is to settle into a job for the very long-term. Also people who become academics usually do want to do the job for life.

    not every UK university is like that either – at mine, even with all-time high recruitment, we’re constantly being told that the place might not survive the next ten years.

    an anecdote to support your final point – from a bad interview I had – at the one before it, I was advised in feedback to talk more, and in the subsequent one I did, only to be told that I talk too much and from that they inferred that I wouldn’t let students speak enough in seminars.

    Though they were probably right not to give me that job, it still annoys me that they equated a job interview with seminar teaching, even if that was just their polite excuse.

    shake

    September 20, 2009 at 8:46 am

  8. Thanks for such a detailed response. Was playing devil’s advocate a little, I do agree an hour is not much. I’m surprised a second round of interviews and/or an afternoon’s informal campus visit isn’t already worked into the model. Standard in say, NHS management recruitment to have these visits and often second round interviews.

    On the other hand – and this picks up a little on Shake’s post – there’s a monolithic corporate recruitment culture in law, consulting, finance and increasingly in the higher echelons of public sector which makes me feel slightly sick. Multiple interviews, assessments, group exercises, presentations, etc.

    Re jobs for life Shake, in terms of the professions they’re scarcer than you’d think. Public sector jobs (inc medicine) tend to be highly fenced round with very strict protection for employees. Corporate culture is much more circumspect. In law, the standard entry is 2 yrs legal study, 2 yrs probation working for the firm that paid for you to train. The bigger, more ruthless firms overrecruit, then shed the weak after the 2 yrs probation period. This ritual is known simply as ‘the cut’

    anon again

    September 20, 2009 at 2:23 pm

  9. shake,

    as it stands now you rely on people you know suggesting you to their friends at other institutions.

    Yep, this is the pernicious part on both sides of the water. Here it seems like a network of friends. In the US, it’s more like certain places serve as “farm teams” for certain prestigious grad programs. About half of my grad school friends spent time teaching at a certain midwestern liberal arts college, for instance. They basically kept two temp positions open for us.

    an anecdote to support your final point

    Yeah I know. And it’s not just with interviewing – publishing articles and books seems to work the same way. It’s just hard to think of another way to figure this issue out. I can’t think of one. Absolutely the wrong answer is the relatively common practice in the US of sticking someone into an undergrad class and observing them – weird for all involved.

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    September 20, 2009 at 11:23 pm

  10. anon again,

    I agree with all that you say. And the US system is basically a double interview system. First you sit on a hotel room bed, then you visit the campus. Not perfect… but better than the single hour. And the practice of parking all the candidates in a single waiting room is just plain Public School and bizarre.

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    September 20, 2009 at 11:25 pm

  11. Point taken about the law, even more stupid of me because a good friend of mine was cut fairly brutally a while back, pre-recession.

    There are certain predestined routes into temp teaching over here too which kind of rely on having studied at X or Y institution, mentioning absolutely no places by name. But even those have tended to spring from chance acquaintances and good experiences. It doesn’t help that this stuff so often comes up incredibly late in the day, leaving the institution no time to really think about it and leaving the temp lecturer no time to prepare.

    I was totally mis-sold what ‘academic networking at conferences’ means, back in the day. I was led to believe that you go to conferences to get your name known and then the academics you meet will look more kindly on you when selecting for jobs; actually, conferences seem to be places to sort out publications (and even then you usually only get commissions once you have a teaching job). jobs seem totally unrelated to that and (i guess) more professional as a result.

    I couldn’t bear going into an undergrad classroom and teaching at an interview. I find it nerve-wracking enough as it is without being (so) aware that every single person there is evaluating me.

    at the job I ended up getting here, they managed (through luck as opposed to intention, I am assured) to avoid the ‘sit in a room talking to people you vaguely know’ thing, and I think that’s good.

    shake

    September 23, 2009 at 8:57 am


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