Why hello there! It’s been awhile. I could list the many reasons I haven’t been blogging, but (a) I am a staunch opponent of busy porn, and (b) we all know I had plenty of time to watch all of Season 1 of Queer Eye AND to consider the many think-pieces about whether or not Antoni can actually cook, so let’s not pretend like my dance card was full.
But the truth is, I’ve been wrestling a little bit with what to post about next. I’m preoccupied with a few professional insecurities that aren’t quite ripe for blogging. It’s bad luck to pick over the tenure process like a chicken carcass while my file is still meandering through upper administration, not slated to emerge until the fall. (Triumphant, I hope?) It’s bad form to engage in any public hand-wringing regarding my future role in academic service before the shape of the department’s administration for the coming academic year is decided by the Powers That Be — the Powers That Be being a committee I sit on, because of course I was voted onto that committee. Someday I’m sure I’ll blog about all of the failures leading up to and attending such matters, searching for the perfect metaphor to describe my ungainly attempts at professionalism. (Pony poop is taken. Dramatic Chipmunk Face: gone. It’s a veritable bestiary of bumbling around here.)
So, holding future failures in reserve, I think I need to write about my realization that I am not good at giving advice to despairing people. And my realization that I will be called on to give that advice all the time. And my further realization that I don’t know how to become more adept at this crucial thing I do. Here goes.
At this year’s MLA convention, I participated in a sort of open house session about employment for humanities PhDs.* The room was full of interesting people employed in non-faculty positions at nonprofits, government agencies, technology firms, and other places that do not require you to convince 19-year-olds that they should read Wollstonecraft. Some of these people were even ready to hire humanities PhDs. Right now! Apply! I assumed that most people attending this session were interested in work outside of academia, and so I fully expected to be the most ignored person in the room. I was, after all, the known quantity. Graduate students are intimately acquainted with what the road to a tenure-track position looks like, even if that road is treacherous and unreliable. I brought a cup of coffee. I secreted a book in my backpack.
I was not ignored.
I was an assistant professor who had managed to trick a committee into hiring me (suckas!) in 2012, when the market was terrible (although not as terrible as it is now.) Before signing my contract (and promptly going out for Tex-Mex), I had weathered four years of waiting, sweaty-palmed and business-suited, in the lobbies of MLA hotels, reviewing for the millionth time my answer to “So tell us about your dissertation!”** While, unfortunately, four years is no longer as jaw-dropping as it used to be, it did draw a lot of current job-seekers to my corner of the conference room. Five in a row asked the exact same question.
How did you survive?
I’m not being melodramatic. That was the question. And the thing is: I don’t know. I turned to a classic academic interview strategy. I stalled by furrowing my brow and asking for clarification. How did I survive emotionally? Or how did I afford to buy groceries? Or how did I walk down the hallways of my department without feeling like an imposter? Or how did I explain to family and friends when I was going to just get a job already? (Couldn’t I just apply to UNC?) Or how did I explain a gap on my CV? Yes. All of it. How. I didn’t have an answer to any of those questions that anyone currently trying for an academic job will find useful. The financial problem has the simplest but probably the most frustrating response: my graduate institution hired me, full time with benefits, to teach college writing.
No one staring down the end of funding wants to hear about your luck. Luck is a lottery ticket. Luck is gas station sushi. You can’t trust luck.
I responded to the rest of those important questions with a stream of trite but truisms. Try not to take it personally. It’s all about fit. Tailor your job documents. Remain active in your field. Focus on your research. And I left feeling like a terrible cog in a terrible machine designed to crush dreams. I felt like the Trash Heap from Fraggle Rock, but without the unstudied charm of a faded grande dame. But my survivor’s guilt does not trump their very real need for employment.
This problem is not just an MLA problem. It’s my job. I work in a department that is home to a lot of smart, talented graduate students, and like a lot of smart, talented graduated students, many of them are having a hard time finding a job. As our Associate Director of Graduate Studies, I’m what many departments call the “job market officer,” and so I work one-on-one with those students. Which I love. (They really are amazing. They’re so much smarter than me.) They — rightly and fairly — ask me the same questions I encountered in that conference ballroom, and I still don’t know how to answer. And I suspect that, at this point, they are familiar with my stalling strategies.
And I don’t want to stall with them. I want to help in a more reliable way than gas station sushi. I think my current approach is going to have to be embarrassing honesty about how I actually did deal with those four years.
For example: in Year 1, I blithely assumed that the relentlessly positive feedback from faculty during my first campus visit meant that obviously the contract was in the mail. It was, of course, in the mail — just not to me. I felt like I had been hit by a 2×4. It actually felt difficult to breathe. I sadly continued to look at the links I’d bookmarked in a hopeful file on my laptop: information on restaurants and apartments in the town surrounding the college where no, I would not be working. I replayed the entire visit in my head, trying to hunt out where I had thrown it away. (I did discover, upon reflection, that the kind search chair had pretty much broken up with me in the car, telling me that “whatever happened I had done a good job.”) I lost a few weeks to the void on that one.
And when in Year 2, probably due to some legal ridiculousness, one search committee chair called me multiple times to tell me that I did not, in fact, get a job I thought I might somehow have managed to snag — memorably calling me by the wrong name at the start of that first rejection call — I cried in bed. Like, for a while. Ugly crying. And I stopped doing anything but eating Doritos and explaining the injustice of academia to my cat, who promptly, and coldly, asked me to tell her about my dissertation.
And when, at the end of Year 3, I decided to step off the carousel and find something else to do with my life, I spent at least a week opening and closing job search websites, not because I couldn’t commit to looking elsewhere, but because I didn’t know what I possibly could do or who would actually want to hire me. At least two people asked: Well, if you don’t become a professor, what else are you going to do? Isn’t being a professor all you want to do? I simultaneously agreed with those people and wished that they would wake up with a mouth full of mayonnaise (my go-to hex).
None of these are healthy coping strategies, but it’s all I have for now. Me, playing my tiny violin and singing my song of past woe. And I don’t know if any of that is comforting when I relate it from behind my desk. I’m where I am, after all, and the future is never certain for the questioner. It doesn’t feel comforting coming out of my mouth.
But there’s a lot of bathroom crying in academia. And it’s good to know that some of the people on faculty have emerged from their rabbit warren of Kleenex.
* “Alt-ac” has been replaced by “humanities careers,” which is similarly awkward but at least doesn’t sound like a sneeze.
** I have been collecting questions our graduate students answer in academic interviews. Turns out this isn’t the frontrunner first question anymore. Instead, committees ask “Why do you want to work here?” or some version of that. #themoreyouknow