This gem is making the rounds of the interwebs: UC-Riverside’s English department plans to let semi-finalists for its job in American Literature know five days in advance if they are to be interviewed at the Modern Language Association meeting. Rebecca Schuman, a writer for Slate and The Chronicle of Higher Education has outed them on her blog, pan kisses kafka. After years of winning prizes, Schuman went through four job seasons without being offered a job. She quit to become an education journalist. “These days,” she writes in her profile, “I can’t believe I ever wanted to be a full-time professor, given how much more fun it is to be able to say whatever the fuck I want to and get paid for it.”
I can’t believe that she isn’t a little more cautious about attacking people in public without getting their side of the story, given that she is a professional journalist. And yes, it is great to say whatever the fuck you want: it’s just not always the right thing to do.
This leads me to one of the unexplored but fascinating topics in contemporary academia: chronic rage, and the ways that digital media now allows us to express our rage without having to deal with actual people. Furthermore, people put their anger out there with the misguided idea that only a few close and sympathetic friends are paying attention, when in fact there are hundreds, or thousands, of potential readers who are, by accident, forming an opinion about people based on their hostile posts.
On line hissy fits, some of which identify the crimes of named institutions and departments, have become ever more acute as a buyer’s job market prolongs the discomforts and insecurities of graduate school indefinitely. Digital communities of people, gathered as support groups or to share information, not infrequently devolve into knots of anger — at employers, potential employers, students, graduate advisors — and the people involved never seem to question whether the atmosphere of mistrust and hostility is actually justified.
Here is Schuman’s hypothetical explanation for why a department is putting job candidates in a more than difficult position:
The way I see it, Dr. Katherine Kinney and the Overlords of the UC-Riverside English department have decided that anyone they deem worthy will, of course,already be attending MLA, either to give several important papers, or to be interviewed by several other institutions who have the common fucking human decency to notify their candidates more than three days in advance. This is a move that is both elitist and out of touch. Because of the hyper-competitive market and huge glut of applicants for every job, nowadays many, many PhDs and ABDs now attend MLA to go on a single, solitary, pathetic interview–because, they’re told, “all it takes is one,” after all.
In other words, while utterly correct in questioning the casual attitude towards job applicants, Schuman really had no idea why the UC-Riverside English department has done what they have done or why. And she didn’t bother to find out. Were she actually functioning as an education journalist, rather than a freelance blogger, I would hope that an editor would have asked her to contact the department chair and ask a few questions. But she didn’t, because in today’s atmosphere of rage, it is utterly plausible that a group of tenured and tenure track faculty are simply making the hoop harder to jump through. Because they can.
But wait. As someone who has from time to time published hostile posts I have regretted, equally plausible scenarios occur to me:
- Final budgetary approval for the job is still pending into the New Year, and the department has not been authorized to contact applicants until January 3, when the administrative unit is positive that the search will be funded.
- An affirmative action officer determined that the department had not done adequate recruiting for the position and insisted on another round of applications before a semi-finalist list could be drawn up.
- The search committee had to read hundreds of applications, all from outstanding candidates who were difficult to cut from the pool. Simultaneously, with the cuts to the UC system, course loads have risen dramatically.
- An administrator who is not quite on top of his or her game has had that list in the “In Box” and has simply not gotten back to the department.
Now I don’t know that any of these things are true, and everyone on the job market has the right to be on edge. But an a priori assumption of bad faith on the part of the search chair and the department does not seem fully established enough to, as Schuman puts it, “shame” UC-R for failing to notify its list until the last minute.
Now, here’s the question: how should the search committee at UC-R respond to this criticism? And how should job candidates who do discover they have interviews with this committee handle a last minute request?
There are some people on their list who will be at the meeting for other reasons: they have other interviews, they are in the area anyway, they are giving a paper. But there will be some people who aren’t. If you are one of these people, here’s my advice:
- If you are within driving or train distance, decide if it is worth traveling round trip for a day to have a job interview at the meeting, where you can be easily compared to the other candidates. Here are some things to think about as you make that decision: how much do you want a chance at a career on the tenure-track? Would you take this job if it were offered, or do you have other, better, options? Is blowing the UC-Riverside English department off going to restore your sense of lost dignity? People in other professions — oil and gas engineer, administrative assistant, restaurant franchise manager, coach, nurse, high school principle — go to great lengths to make it to job interviews where they have as much, or as little, chance as you do to get a job. Are you better than they are?
- Southwest Airlines last minute fares are really very cheap, and this year’s MLA meeting is in Chicago, one of the cheapest places to get to on God’s Green Earth. OK, it isn’t dirt cheap, but booked today, it would cost you less than $500 to go, with $100 for meals. Can you bunk in with a friend? Can you just fly back the same day? Where academic rage really screws you up is if you start with the idea that you aren’t going to get the job anyway, its ok to be angry about it ahead of time, and because of that you might as well take $500 out and burn it in your living room as take a phone call from the likes of UC-Riverside.
- But let’s say this isn’t going to work, for whatever reason: financial, situational or personal. Be a reasonable human being and not a maniac! Call the search committee and explain, telling them you are delighted about their interest, but you are going to have to arrange a Skype interview. The first year I was on the job market, I got one conference interview at the last minute. I called and asked if I could drive up to their campus, about eight hours round trip, for a preliminary interview. They thought this was an utterly reasonable request, and in fact, I became a finalist for the job. Search committees are real people, not monsters, and some faculty will have recently come off the job market themselves. Their friends and spouses are still working contingent jobs. They are undoubtedly wise to the situation of their own graduate students. In fact, there is probably no field in academia more wise to the difficulties of the job market than English. They might be good people that you are misjudging for circumstances that are beyond their control.
What worries me is that any number of people who have every reason to be happy about how their lives turned out — they made a good transition to non-academic work, they have tenure-track or tenured jobs themselves — continue to encourage generations of graduate students to be enraged that the job market of the 1960s no longer exists, and to express that rage in ways that immediately call other people’s reputations into question.
Anger can be healthy: it can also be a real problem in a colleague if it is a chronic response to insecurity, or if it is a way to refuse the resolution of past harm. I don’t want to work with someone whose first response to a conflict is to broadcast their version of the story, spread unfounded accusations and express their negative feelings about me. I want to work with people who, like adults, are ready to resolve conflict and move on with our work. What can be most insidious in this world of social media is the idea that “venting” publicly will resolve the hurt or shame that has triggered the anger in the first place. In my experience it doesn’t: it amplifies and justifies the rage, making it even more difficult for the person who harbors it to move on.
Note: This post was edited to reflect the correct spelling of Schuman’s name, which was originally altered by the spelling checker, not so that I might add insult to injury. Here is her response to this post.
Christmas Eve Follow-up: Schuman unloads on me again here, where she also declares herself “the unequivocal victor” in this debate, I suppose because she has managed to muster the nastiest commenters. Good luck with that as a career strategy in journalism or academia. As a side note, for the third time she claims to have been stuck in LA traffic for five hours yesterday — so I guess she couldn’t possibly have been a sock puppet trolling my comments section….right? Right?