Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Because You Always Need to Stay One Meeting Ahead....

Prior to packing my bags for the AHA in New York, I made my arrangements for the Organization of American Historians Annual Meeting in Seattle, March 25-29, 2009. Recalling the last few conferences I have attended, my travel allotment has not in any way kept pace with what it actually costs to attend the meeting. This one truly blows the bank, since I am currently $100.00 over budget (a budget that assumes I will split my room with a friend -- hell, a these prices, I'll share my room with a foe) without having eaten anything, parked at the airport, or signed up for the hotel internet service, which is about the cheesiest thing for a supposedly classy hotel to charge for, in my opinion.

Toting up the actual bill for all of this, I'm thinking that it would be about the same price to hold the conference in Paris. And the only way to save real money would be to hold it in Oaxaca or Mexico City. Not a bad idea either, come to think about it.

This makes me think: imagine the people who have no conference money. One topic that needs to be on the agenda of all academic professional associations is that the rising cost of everything, and the shrinking or nonexistent budgets of those who do not work for R1 schools, or SLACS that value professional development enough to pay for it, is how scholars are hampered in their careers when they don't have access to conference and research funds. It is a discussion long overdue, but perhaps the economic crunch will cause us to begin thinking about it at last.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Grand Hotel: The AHA Conference Interview Redux

Baron: You're so beautiful. It tore my heart to see you in despair like that...Please don't cry any more...I'd no idea you were so beautiful. I'd like to take you in my arms, and not let anything happen to you, ever...I've never seen anything in my life as beautiful as you are....

Grusinskaya (getting up): You must go now.

Baron: I'm not going. You know I'm not going. Oh, please let me stay.

Grusinskaya: But I want to be alone.

Baron: That isn't true. You don't want to be alone. You were in despair just now. I can't leave you now. You, you mustn't cry any more. You must forget. Let me stay just for a little while. Ah, please let me stay.

Grusinskaya: For just a minute, then.

Okay, so your conference interview won't be this exciting. But here's hoping it won't be so mysterious, convoluted and indirect either. Surely you are starting to get excited? Aren't you? So let's start to prepare for the Big Event, now that you have your all-important outfit exactly the way you want it and you have acquired the information you need about what the committee will wish to discuss.

Last year I went over the basics of the conference interview in this post; shrewd readers will note (have noted) that this year's advice on how to dress was both more detailed and more conservative than last year's advice (to sum up last year's advice: be yourself -- within reason.) For those who don't follow hyperlinks, the formula for a successful interview is this: have a five-minute description of your dissertation ready to go; be able to talk about specific courses you will teach, particularly those mentioned or implied by the original advertisement; enter the room as if you commanded it, making self-confident, eyeball-to-eyeball connection with everyone there, and sustain it throughout the interview; and have a couple questions about the school that indicate both that you have done your homework and that you have a warm, genuine interest in the school (even if you do not yet feel it.)

As I have written elsewhere, there are three obvious elements to every conference interview: scholarship, teaching and the conclusion to the encounter that is so easy to fumble: "Do you have any questions for us?" Throughout, there is a tricky subtext to every interview. You, the candidate, should be trying to figure out, no matter how well you have prepared for this moment, "Who are these people?" And they are smiling and looking at you and thinking, "Who is this person?" Only their question needs to be answered before you leave the room. Although your perception of them can help you do a skillful interview, the only perception that matters in any practical sense is theirs. If the committee cannot answer it to their enthusiastic satisfaction, you don't get a second chance.

But just for a minute I want to address the perils of the candidate acquiring fixed ideas about the search committee, and the school, prior to the interview. I am hearing two things on the graduate student grapevine this year prior to this weekend's American Historical Association Annual Meeting. One is terror, because jobs have been canceled and may yet be canceled even if the committees are being permitted to go ahead with interviews; the other is some version of "Oh, I have an interview at Xstatic University, but I would never go there." For some reason the response to a shrinking job market among some graduate students is to shrink their prospects even further by setting personal criteria in which the candidate announces that s/he "could never live outside a city" (an even better version of this is "I couldn't ever leave New York/Chicago/San Francisco." Well good luck with that one.) Another is, having done the appropriate research on the institution and the committee, for the candidate to announce that s/he is probably going to withdraw from the search because the ideological atmosphere at that university, or in that part of the country, is unbearable in some way. OK, be that way -- but withdraw now so they can interview someone else at AHA, ok?

Those who are in touch with their inner terror are probably doing the best at this point: not only are you going after all your interviews like the dog to the proverbial bone, but you are also planning on going to the gang interviews held at long tables (known as the "cattle call" in my day) where schools that can't afford to rent an interviewing suite, or who have been authorized to search at the last minute, are interviewing people on a first-come, first-serve basis. And you know what I say to you? Nice work. Because not only can you make a great life as a tenured professor at a school your mentors at Ivystan University have never heard of, you might even hang in with the profession long enough to figure out what you want out of it, and whether you want to (or can) write your way out to someplace else. Or you could find out if you actually care about writing at all, and would be happier at a teaching-intensive school.

But I want to talk to the rest of you for a minute. Those interviews that you are writing off before you have done them are interviews that need to be prepared for just as zealously as the interviews for the jobs you covet. Why?

As one blogging historian recounted to me recently, she had made a list of pros and cons for a possible job that would require a big move, and was discussing it with a friend. The friend (also someone I know, and it is a classic remark from this person) said: "Never turn down a job you haven't been offered yet." I'll go one step further. It is the highest form of narcissism to convey that it is you, with your Ivystan degree, who have the right of first refusal. Can you still lay claim to the idea that you want a career as a working historian if you will only work at a school of similar status to the one from which you will receive your Ph.D.? Can you honestly imagine that Bogtown State University is desperately hoping that you will consent to move to the next stage of their process, but you -- desirable you -- will assert that you "vant to be alone?" Oh for heaven's sake. Now, what you are probably experiencing is the same terror that is sending other candidates scurrying to those long interviewing tables in the basement of the Hilton, but you are responding to it in a self-destructive way by cutting a school that has a salary, students and benefits to offer before they have the chance to cut you. I "vant you" to know two things: I understand. And also -- this is nuts, unless you have some other game plan that is equally acceptable to you, like moving into an administrative career, marrying money, cobbling together eight adjunct courses next year and hoping Obama has a health plan up his sleeve, or winning American Idol. So here are the Radical's do's and don'ts, for interviews at schools that make you want to cry just thinking about them.

Do regard all interviews as good experience. Self-presentation, performing all the basics of a good interview, tailoring your responses to the needs of the school you are interviewing with, and performing like a champ when you are nervous and in an unfamiliar environment are all learned skills. This is just as good a setting to acquire them as anywhere else.

Don't imagine that just because you have researched a school you know everything about them, about how you would be received there, or even about whether you would like it. I know two gay men who, sequentially, went to work for the same state university in a fly-over state. Both were treated with graciousness, kindness and great generosity in a place where you might ordinarily expect them to have been committed to an asylum on principle. It was a stage on the way to somewhere else, and everyone knew it, but it was a pleasant stage for all concerned nonetheless.

Do treat all search committees with respect. They are giving you a chance -- give them one too. I have had a few interviews in my life where some Big Research University graduate student has roared in and treated the Zenith committee (a group of people who has a proven teaching and publishing record, despite our lack of a graduate program) with absolute contempt. I actually think this is just inexcusable, but if my personal disapproval doesn't sway you, try this: you have no idea who else may hear of your childish behavior at the smoker that evening. Like someone on your dissertation committee. Even if you are sure that you would rather sell hot dogs on the streets of New York (they may be hiring too -- you should check as long as you are in town) than go to Struggling State U., SSU may be your only option this year. Or SSU may be the other offer that allows you to negotiate a bit for the job you really want. But even if neither of these things come true, someone else who really wanted the chance to interview didn't get it because of you, and the committee had enough respect for you to give you a chance. Give them a chance too.

Don't ask detailed questions about personnel matters. Starting salary, research budgets, tenure clock, personnel processes related to joint or shared appointments -- all of these things are time-wasters in my view, until and unless you are invited to campus. Why? Because the committee is making decisions about you at this point, not vice versa. BUT:

Do ask questions that should have been in the ad but weren't, and that might give you an opportunity to let them know more about why you are perfect for the job, or just a thoughtful person they might like to have on board. Let's say the teaching load was not mentioned in the ad or by the committee. Asking about it (let's say it's a 3-4 load) then allows you to say, "and how do most of you manage that load?" Here, a point of information question has led you quickly to expressing interest in them, and what their lives are like as if being part of their enterprise was something that was real to you. Or that you love the twentieth century survey so much, teaching three sections of it simultaneously sends you to the moon. Here's another scenario: let's say you are interviewing for a women's history job, and you know from your research that there is a women's studies program, but it hasn't been mentioned. A good initial question would be to ask neutrally: "Are members of the history department also encouraged to participate in interdisciplinary programs?" Here, you could get good information about the department culture. More importantly, you are communicating your interest in the department culture, but also reaching out to anyone in the room who was hoping you would want to be part of a women's studies project and didn't want to scare you off by loading the job down with too many expectations -- or scare her colleagues off you by tarnishing your sterling political history credentials by suggesting that you might (gasp!) be a feminist.

In other words:

Don't forget that they are interviewing you, but do shape the end of interview, if you can, by the questions you ask. While it is perfectly reasonable to solicit information about the institution that you don't have, every second of the interview should be aimed at conveying positive information about yourself. I would argue that it is only appropriate to ask a couple questions, particularly since there is another candidate coming up on your heels, and question-time is always a way of concluding the interview. But manipulate every question to create an opening to convey something about yourself that either was not elicited by the committee, or that lets the committee know that you are interested in the uniqueness of their department, and their institution.

Good luck, History Scouts. See you in New York. And write in to tell us how you did.

Update: this just in from Historiann.

Friday, December 26, 2008

How To Succeed At Your AHA Interview Without Really Trying: Looking Smart

Last year around this time I posted my guide to novice American Historical Association Annual Meeting attendees. This year we go to New York! So much better than Chicago, which is only good for the Chicagoans, since none of the rest of us are ever allowed to arrive or to leave on our flights as they were originally scheduled, so cursed by the goddess is Chicago and its weather.

This year you can find me at the reception thrown by the Coordinating Council for Women in History. Saturday evening I will be receiving at the soiree held by the Committee on Lesbian and Gay History, an organization that is soon to be called something else (add Transgender and stir), but for now look for CLGH on the program. However, I won't get to wander 'round the book exhibit or the convention as much as I like to because over the course of three days I will be locked in a room with a jury of my peers conducting interviews with aspiring employees of Zenith University. Which leads me to a recent question asked by a reader: "Would you consider, oh wise Radical, offering advice for a Successful Convention Interview?"

Of course dear. How can I resist, when you put it that way? Let's begin with your appearance, and later in the week, we'll proceed to preparing for the interview itself.

What should you wear? Business attire is the general answer to this question; leave your fancy jeans and sexy miniskirts at home. Do not, however, wear anything that makes you explicitly uncomfortable and if you need to slide over to the "business casual" column to do this that's okay too. To answer a perennial question, I think it is generally accepted nowadays (particularly in our post-Hillary for President world) that no woman ever needs to wear a skirt again in a business situation if she does not wish to. As for neckties, I think there are two rules: butch lesbians, it doesn't necessarily signal to others that you are "dressing up" if you wear a necktie, although it does signal "I'm gay!" if that's what you want (please remember that this is not the MLA.) For men of all descriptions, I would argue for the tie if you know there will be other men over the age of sixty (who are not Howard Zinn) in the room. But if a necktie really makes you uncomfortable, go with the fancy tee-shirt/sweater under the jacket thing. Bow ties are pretentious, but can be cute on some folks, like Malcolm X or Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and if you are trying to achieve that effect, go for it. What I would advocate against is anything high concept, or anything in a startling color. You don't want to be remembered as "the guy in the plum pants," or have everything important you said in that hotel room eclipsed as the door shuts behind you and the committee explodes with laughter over shoes they last saw on Sex and the City.

The important thing to signal with your outfit is: I am a professional and I care what you think of me. The important thing not to signal is: "I'm weird!" It's not necessary to go out and spend a lot of money on interview clothes, but what you wear should fit properly, be neat, well-pressed and comfortable. Shoes should be polished and not run down at the heels. No need to buy new ones: you still have time to refurbish an old pair, or even jet out to the Goodwill and buy a really nice pair of shoes and have them polished or re-heeled. And take this memo: if all you need is a shine, there is no better place than a New York airport or Pennsylvania Train Station to get a quick one from an old pro.

Hair. Same as above. Get a trim; nothing high concept, and nothing you have to fool with endlessly between interviews. If you have facial hair, do not play with it. This may be very difficult for you, because most people who have facial hair touch their beards and mustaches constantly. Every transman I know strokes his face non-stop, whether he is bearded or clean-shaven; and most people who are born as men and grow beards can't keep their hands off them. It has an effect on others similar to sitting in a room full of fifth grade girls sucking on their pigtails, pulling apart their split ends, and braiding/unbraiding their hair. You can't pay attention to anything else, and it is uncomfortably personal.

Earrings and other jewelry. Again, nothing distracting if you can avoid it, like eight gold rings in on ear and none in the other. Earrings that dangle are fine, but neither they or a bracelet should tinkle every time you move. Many people over the age of forty find eyebrow, nose, lip and tongue jewelry to be a big distraction, unprofessional and a little juvenile. I happen to be one of them, and although I am aware that this is undoubtedly a function of my advanced age and I banish the thought, other people who are not so queer as I will not be aware that what they are experiencing is intolerance. On the other hand, if the alternative to facial jewelry is a huge, gaping hole in your forehead or nose, do fill it with something low-key.

Gay men often agonize over whether to remove a single, tasteful earring stud for an interview: as far as I can tell, this concern never occurs to straight men who wear earrings and studs, and they don't seem to worry that this could make them "seem" gay. So I would say, wear that earring with pride, boys. And anyway, you can't hide, even if you take out the earring. People like me always notice the empty ear lobe hole and think, "Hmmmmm.....I hope he's gay."

Try not to smell unpleasant. I'm not talking about body odor, although that is to be avoided. There are three main offenders: bad breath, cigarette smoke, and bottled scents of various kinds. Ordinary bad breath (I can't deal with the transcendentally bad breath that accompanies various forms of gum disease in a short post) can be avoided by carrying around a Zip-Loc bag with mouthwash, toothpaste, and floss in it, as well as by carrying a little pack of breath mints, one of which you will crunch quickly as you approach each hotel room door. Make this part of your interview ritual. Also, don't put anything in your mouth or body that is bound to linger. Practice saying "No onions please!" Know that if you get really soggy drunk the night before your interview, in addition to being hung over and stupid-feeling, a boozy smell will emerge with every exhalation as your body attempts to rid itself of alcohol in every available way.

If you are a habitual smoker, it's going to be hard to avoid smelling like it, I'm afraid. While I wouldn't advise anyone to stop smoking at a moment of stress (in fact, in my experience, it can cause memory glitches), if you are just a party smoker, knock it off until your interviews are over.

And whatever you do, do not wear scent, of any kind. Buy unscented or lightly scented anti-perspirant and a travel-size bottle of some shampoo that does not smell like fruit. Something you think is charming may be repulsive to someone else, who then will have a hard time listening to what you are saying as they do their best not to gag, sneeze and wish you out of the room. I find most men's colognes revolting, for example, and they linger in the room long after the person has departed. I would prefer the smell of perspiration on anyone, any day of the week, to most scents designed to cover it up. We on the committee expect you to be nervous; we don't expect you to smell like a tart.

Remove all animal hair from your clothes. I don't think I need to say more than this, do I? If you have pets that shed, bring some kind of very effective clothes brush with you, because there are multiple transfer points at which even the cleanest clothes pick up fur. In fact, if you have pets, you can avoid the whole problem by wearing grey. There isn't a pet hair in the world that shows up on grey. You may, of course, be remembered as "The Woman in Grey" or "the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit," but it's much better than being remembered as the dowdy person who was covered in pet hair.

I do want to close this post by saying that, contrary to advice you will find on the wiki from other graduate students, I have never been on a search committee in my life where a candidate has been consciously disqualified or downgraded because of a fatal fashion error. But the point remains: you have somewhere between 30 and 40 minutes to impress these people, and your job is to make them listen. They will listen better if they have nothing else to think about but what is coming out of your mouth.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Holiday Gifts for the Cheney, Bush and McCain Families To Express Our Gratitude for Their Public Service

Wondering what to get those special federal office holders for Christmas? An outrageous apologia from Bill Kristol? NO! Try this framed photo of Sarah Palin!* Lots of laughs around the Christmas Tree! And some bittersweet thoughts about what could have, you know, been...there. You know.

Or click here to purchase Parables of Pop Culture, a book that will help your favorite "old style" Republican pol talk to the family about how "the power of the words on the Burma Shave signs pale in comparison to the power of God's words to us in the bible." Well, yeah! I think so! And maybe God will also explain where the regulatory agencies were sleeping when the CFO buddies of the Bush-Cheney administration were siphoning money from every possible corner of the economy into their own pockets! No, don't be mad, God -- that's a JOKE! There are no regulatory agencies any more! Ha! Ha!

Or click here to purchase The Politically Incorrect Guide To The Civil War, a book that reveals a bunch of great stuff about the War of Northern Aggression that I bet you never learned from that there terrorist-coddling, pansy-liberal history professor of yours. Like, you know, "why Robert E. Lee had a higher regard for African Americans than Lincoln did; how, if there had been no Civil War, the South would have abolished slavery peaceably (as every other country in the Western Hemisphere did in the nineteenth century); and how the Confederate States of America might have helped the Allies win World War I sooner." Golly, true knowledge is such a gift in itself! You can't go wrong with this little item, no sir!

And for only $15.95 -- 15.95 ladies and gentlemen, plus shipping and handling -- you can send a Sarah Palin "2009 calendar featuring never before seen photos of Sarah, with Todd, Track, Bristol, Willow, Piper and Trig Palin." Just call 1.800.247.6553; when they ask for a sales code, shout "EAGLE!" Your favorite former Republican Presidential candidate (whoever THAT was! No I'm JOKING!) will receive this lovely calendar celebrating the woman who "has re-energized the Conservative base of the Republican Party. As a front runner in the 2012 Republican Presidential nomination, she is showing America that she is willing to reform her own party and politics as usual." And here's the best part -- the photographer selling the calendar is Judith Patrick, the former Assistant Mayor of Wasilla! Well, yay! Or go here get a gift subscription to Townhall Magazine for that special soon-to-be-former White House occupant who may be in need of something to read -- and get a Sarah Palin Calendar for free! Double yay!

Merry Christmas, Republicans, and have a ton of fun around the Christmas tree! Don't let the door hit'cha on the way out!


*The photoshopped portrait of Sarah Palin was received over the internet this morning, courtesy of the Mother Of The Radical (MOTheR). I was led to all other items by the regular marketing emails I get from Human Events magazine, ads that are also shilling products by Ann Coulter, Oliver North, Patrick Buchanan, and a bunch of financial advisors you have never heard of.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

So You Want To Be A Blogger: A Few Thoughts On What A Blog Is Not

Are you a lurker? Are you someone who has an RSS feed, or some such mechanism, that delivers posts from your favorite blogs every day? Are you someone who thinks, "Gee, if that clueless Radical can find an audience for her inchoate ramblings, I could really be a star?"

Well baby, if you are thinking of starting your own blog, this post is for you.

At some future date I might hazard a meditation on what a blog is, but one of the interesting and appealing things about blogging right now is that it seems to be a genre that defies categorization and has many uses: journaling, dissemination of news, political organizing, advocacy, or the creation of an audience for a wonderful new book by a well-established author. My guess is that as genres develop definition within blogging, and other utilities like Facebook and Twitter carve out niches in the "I need to be in touch constantly" market, what blogging is will either become better defined, or simply dissolve altogether into so many different modes of communication that we will forget that such a plastic category as "blogging" ever existed. But for those of you who are on the fence about whether to blog or not, the most crucial thing to think about is what your motivation is and what you want from it. So here are my thoughts on what blogging is not, so that you can test your desire to blog against your reasons for blogging, and -- I hope -- define yourself as a blogger in a way that will please you over the long term.

Journalism. Sorry, folks. You Jimmie Olsons and Lois Lanes, you H.L. Menkens and Bill Kristol wanna bes: journalism is a profession, with rules and ethical practices. Most importantly, as some of us have discovered to our chagrin, actual working journalists have editors who theoretically correct their spelling and grammar, keep them from making dumb mistakes and prevent them from offending people needlessly. Whether they are employed by a commercial news outlet or a non-profit (the line has been blurred in recent years, hasn't it?) journalists have editors who ask them questions and who are supposed to hold their feet to the fire about whether what is being published is responsible; whether the story is an opinion piece or a narrative that purports to be factual; and whether the piece has been sourced properly.

The fact that journalism has often not held itself to these standards in recent years (where is Judith Miller spending the holidays this year, I wonder?) does not make blogging journalism, nor do fears that blogging has eaten away at the audience for professional journalism mean that a blogger can wake up one day and declare that s/he is a journalist. The presence of bloggers on mainstream web publications may make those bloggers journalists; some journalists have started to blog on MSM websites without losing their status as journalists; but it doesn't follow that all bloggers -- or even more than a minority of bloggers -- are now journalists.

A virtual space where justice can be achieved. A blog is certainly a place where someone who wishes to advocate for justice can gather an audience for a cause. But whether the blogger is in the right or in the wrong; whether s/he is advocating on behalf of people wrongly accused of felony crimes or cruelty to animals, a rhetorical space is not an appropriate location to achieve actual justice for victims of harm because it does not have any real ethical requirements or rules as a court of law does. There is no statute of limitations that prevents the cause from being pursued endlessly, despite the punishment of those who were responsible for the injustice; there are no limits to the people who can be accused of responsibility for the puported offense, and there is no real accountability to the person or persons who were initially harmed. Indeed, to the extent that blogging is particularly vulnerable to the collection, dissemination and repetition of extreme views and personal attacks, single-issue advocacy blogs that attempt to shape or promote outcomes in the law bear a strong relationship to vigilance societies. And in case you think some of the more notorious of these blogs (for example the one that sells a gimme cap advertising its wearer as a "Blog Hooligan") are the only locations for this phenomenon, look at the comments on this post, where literally one line -- nay, a phrase, at the beginning of a post about the new media provoked a storm of nasty, out of line, and false accusations by aggrieved mothers that the blogger was a misogynist.

A democratic space where all opinions and comments should be welcome and uncensored, regardless of how extreme, irrrelevant, personal and/or nasty they are. Bloggers and dedicated blog commenters (or blog fans) who believe this are confusing democracy with either libertarianism or anarchy. Again, they are following in an old American tradition. Just like the formation of vigilance societies as a response to perceived or actual failures of the law, Americans have repeatedly found ways to express their opposition to the status quo in whatever cheap, free or available public venue they could find -- whether it is leafleting or pamphleteering, walking around with a sandwich board, speaking on street corners, or leaving enraged comments on other peoples blogs. But it is also the case that if you have developed a blog, you have authority over what does and does not appear there, to the extent you can enforce it. Example: someone can stand on a public sidewalk and shout at you, and the First Amendment prevents you from getting the authorities to do much about it: in fact, if you snap, and go out and drive the person off the sidewalk violently, you might be prosecuted for assault. But you also don't have to invite that person in, serve him lunch and invite him to yell at you in your own house.

An excuse to vent all your worst feelings about other people, your class rage, your resentments, your personal vendettas towards others, or spread malicious gossip just because you have access to free publishing software. This is a particular hazard for anonymous bloggers, and something I have commented upon here and in a post here about my reasons for relinquishing anonymity. I mean, you can -- but it doesn't make it right. Posting about how other people offended you or the "funny" things they did that make them look really stupid can be highly self-righteous. I think this is a genuine hazard of blogging that causes us all to sin occasionally regardless of the vigilance we vowed after the last episode. But this doesn't mean it is right. Do not, I repeat, do not use a blog as a form of projective identification, in which you unload terrible anxieties, resentments and rage by writing them up and publishing them. And don't shrug off responsibility for this despicable act by asserting that you merely told the "truth," and that the "truth" sometimes hurts the people who needed to hear it. Having asked myself this question at a few self-critical moments, let me say that it is a useful one: who made you, or me, or anyone else, the god of truth?

So you want to be a blogger: great. Go for it. Just be prepared to stumble and fall. We all do, even as we become more mature and experienced about what we think we are doing. Be prepared for some bad moments, but also know that you can always do it differently next time.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Twelve Days of Christmas: University Cutbacks Version, In Which The Radical Reflects On What Has Changed And What Remains The Same

On the first day of Christmas, my provost gave to me:
A memo that was budgetary.

On the second day of Christmas, my provost gave to me:
Two cancelled searches,
And a memo that was budgetary.

On the third day of Christmas, my provost gave to me:
Three insurance hikes,
Two canceled searches,
And a memo that was budgetary.

On the fourth day of Christmas, my provost gave to me:
Four online courses,
Three insurance hikes, two cancelled searches
And a memo that was budgetary.

On the fifth day of Christmas, my provost gave to me:
Five dancing deans!
Four online courses, three insurance hikes, two cancelled searches
And a memo that was budgetary.

On the sixth day of Christmas, my provost gave to me:
Six salaries shrinking,
Five dancing deans!
Four online courses, three insurance hikes, two cancelled searches
And a memo that was budgetary.

On the seventh day of Christmas, my provost gave to me:
Seven students smoking,
Six salaries shrinking,
Five dancing deans!
Four online courses, three insurance hikes, two cancelled searches
And a memo that was budgetary.

On the eight day of Christmas, my provost gave to me:
Eight colleagues kvetching,
Seven students smoking, six salaries shrinking,
Five dancing deans!
Four online courses, three insurance hikes, two cancelled searches
And a memo that was budgetary.

On the ninth day of Christmas, my provost gave to me:
Nine parents calling,
Eight colleagues kvetching, seven students smoking, six salaries shrinking,
Five dancing deans!
Four online courses, three insurance hikes, two cancelled searches
And a memo that was budgetary.

On the tenth day of Christmas, my provost gave to me:
Ten adjuncts packing,
Nine parents calling, eight colleagues kvetching, seven students smoking, six salaries shrinking,
Five dancing deans!
Four online courses, three insurance hikes, two cancelled searches
And a memo that was budgetary.

On the eleventh day of Christmas, my provost gave to me:
Eleven hedge funds tanking
Ten adjuncts packing, nine parents calling, eight colleagues kvetching, seven students smoking, six salaries shrinking,
Five dancing deans!
Four online courses, three insurance hikes, two cancelled searches
And a memo that was budgetary.

On the twelfth day of Christmas my provost gave to me:
Twelve trustees talking
Eleven hedge funds tanking,ten adjuncts packing, nine parents calling, eight colleagues kvetching, seven students smoking, six salaries shrinking,
Five dancing deans!
Four online courses, three insurance hikes, two cancelled searches,

(All with gusto now)


Saturday, December 13, 2008

And Here's A Little Coal In Your Christmas Stocking: Tenure Denied

The tenure cases that were submitted early in the fall are starting to come through: mostly, there will be laughter and clinking glasses. Although rates of success differ across institutions, the majority of people who come up for tenure will get it. The vast majority. Which makes it ever more painful when you, or someone you have supported, is denied. This just in from a professor of history at Wuzzup College:*

I teach at a four-year college. Yesterday I found out that my only untenured colleague was turned down for tenure by the dean. I'm spending my morning trying to figure out what to do to see if we can get this overturned. I called the one colleague I know to whom the administration sometimes listens and left a frantic message on his answering machine.

I was afraid this was going to happen. I was on the Tenure and Promotion Committee, which has been weird the last couple of years. It's like some of my colleagues all of a sudden want to raise the bar for tenure and promotion at what has always been a teaching school, thus punishing our newer colleagues who have come in during this transition. In one meeting over my colleague's tenure case, a colleague who had seemed equally disgusted by this trend last year, abruptly reversed this position and raised a question about the slow publishing pace. Since when have we been a publish or perish institution? I replied, stating quite firmly that my colleague has done everything asked of her as far as teaching and service, and that I know she is working on her scholarship, but publishing a book, given our course load, takes more than the five years allotted before tenure review. The candidate for tenure was also asked to take overloads by our department head to help out another department. I concluded by saying that I couldn't ask for a better colleague and that I was proud to have her as part of our department.

Plus, she has never received a bad annual evaluation. Plus, she is the best and smartest colleague in the world.

What should I do?

Yes, this is bad: when administrators, or a T & P, takes it into their heads to "raise standards" the first step is always to put a brake on promotions of those people who have met, but perhaps not exceeded, the old scholarly criteria, not because they were lazy but because they were doing institutional work. What is worse is that most tenured colleagues who have strenuously opposed arbitrary raising of standards capitulate to them shortly after the bar is raised (like the self-interested cowards many academics are.) They excuse this treachery by saying that either a) it was always that way; or, b) that they fear that the department as a whole will "lose credibility" because it will be perceived as not having high standards. Thus, screwing one person is articulated as in the best interests of other, unnamed people, who will follow. In my case, I was also told repeatedly that getting screwed by the new standards was good for me too, since I was being promoted to full professor and I would feel better about the delayed promotion and raise for having met a higher scholarly standard.

As usual when it comes to sending someone to the penalty box, it is women who seem to suffer disproportionately from a phenomenon we might call Horizon Creep. Women's generous capacity for doing the institutional work no one else wants to do causes them to be treated like half-wits when they come up for tenure or promotion, and this is a particular hazard during institutional Horizon Creep. Meanwhile the men and one bitchy female in European glasses (all of whom left the room while scut work was being assigned, were instead asked to serve on journal boards and edit volumes with male colleagues, and took a semester or two of baby leave which causes them to be praised as truly engaged parents) are held up as exemplars for having lifted themselves up to the "new" publishing standard with ease.

Having experienced this bullshit first hand, I feel your pain, My Dear Correspondent. My encounter with Horizon Creep is, after all, how I was transformed from a person who merely bitched in the halls to the Tenured Radical with the Barbed Wire Soul that you know and love today. But enough about me -- what should you do?

My first piece of advice is stop calling people on the phone and leaving crazed messages that you may regret and, as Joe Hill used to say, organize. You need a plan, and allies to plan with. What that plan is depends on several things.

What is your grievance procedure? And will the department join in the appeal? Any department that does not appeal denial of tenure in this economic climate is out of their minds, and I would get a copy of these regulations immediately and begin plotting this crucial step.

If you are actually serving on the T & P, you cannot be a part of this, either as a counselor or as a co-conspirator. In other words, if you have had access to confidential conversations or documents, you cannot give your friend advice based on that information, but you can point her to whoever that institution-savvy person is who would not be institutionally compromised by helping her. You are not prevented from urging your friends on, but watch out that something you are doing for your friend does not unintentionally make things worse because of advocacy on your part that breaks college regulations and/or established ethical practices about confidentiality.

Was there significant dissent at the level of the department? It sounds like there was some dissent, there and/or in the T &P, and that the Dean had something to work with in this denial. If there were a fair number of no votes at the level of the department, or in the T & P, the candidate may need to appeal individually because if you didn't have a convincing consensus for the original case, you won't have it for the appeal either.

What was said about expectations for tenure in the candidate's letter of appointment, what was said in the reviews, what is on paper in the departmental handbook, and what is explicitly laid out in the faculty handbook? All of this is critical information. That said, if scholarly pace is the issue, I would build my appeal around whether pace was ever mentioned in any contract or review document; and what the language is, precisely, in the faculty handbook regarding scholarly expectations at the time of tenure. I would then take the candidate into a back room and slap her (metaphorically) for agreeing to those teaching overloads. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. If, however, the overloads were something that she was expected to do by a supervisor, that is also a crucial part of your case, and don't slap her. Point out in your appeal that she did more of what she was told she was expected to do, and now she is being held to account for something that she was not told to do, and that the college consistently undervalued in previous tenure cases. Whatever you do, do not make claims for the scholarly record that cannot be sustained under scrutiny or proven: like that she will write someday. Faculties around the country are full of people who were going to write someday, but never got around to it after tenure.

I would urge your colleague to join the AAUP and, if the appeals process does not result in overturning the case, I would grieve through the AAUP. If that doesn't work start helping her pack. Whatever you do, do not advise her to sue. This is the most destructive piece of advice a young person can receive, in my view, not because universities don't deserve to be sued, but because it is emotionally wrenching, divisive, and can be financially ruinous to your friend. Civil suits against a university for wrongful dismissal almost never succeed: juries of ordinary people start to giggle when you explain your right to guaranteed lifetime employment to them. Even when successful lawsuits often rip apart the lives of people who file them. As an aside, said person also becomes virtually unemployable as an academic.

The other thing I would advise is this: try to separate your own, entirely justifiable, sense of outrage from the actions you take and the advice you give to someone else who is hurting. Efforts for redress need to be coupled with efforts to find this person another place to work, perhaps a post-doc somewhere that will allow her to write or a visiting post at another teaching college that will give her some time to think about her long-term future. You can also help by, instead of focusing on how terribly she has been wronged by others, reminding her of all the things she has done right that will help her succeed -- if not at Wuzzup, then somewhere else. Your colleague, and you, may have to accept in the end that she was treated badly, that it can't be fixed and she needs to move on. Lay the groundwork for this even as you appeal the decision and try to keep her thinking actively about her options for employment elsewhere so that the next disappointment, should it occur, does not compound her sense of being out of control. It is a priority to figure out how to make a life, with or without Wuzzup College, and not let this event do more damage over time.

And when you are done with this, gather a group of colleagues together, form an AAUP chapter, and reform your tenure and promotion procedures so that they conform with the best practices as articulated by that organization.

Good luck.

(Some of you may have noticed that there has been a blog redesign: the truth is that I just discovered the fonts and colors widget. If you think it is too loud, just say so.)

* I have changed a number of details to protect the innocent, but I have not altered the basic elements of the story.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Lifeboat: A Conversation About The Incredible Shrinking Budget

Yesterday we had a big meeting at Zenith: more members of the faculty attended than at any previous meeting I can recall, except for one about ten years ago when our last newly hired president was introduced. The Radical and several co-conspirators used this unusual quorum to kill a major university committee to which they had been elected. It was a hideous, time-waster of a major committee, one that received institutional problems that no one wanted to do anything about, made recommendations after many circular and ill-informed debates, and saw those recommendations sent to The File That Has No Name by the administrator who had been appointed the boss of us. In retaliation -- I mean, response -- to this institutional travesty, we secretly devoted our energy, not to issues that were dumped on our doorstep, but to creating a rationale and a strategy for killing the committee. The problem was gaining not just a quorum, but a two-thirds majority necessary for altering the Faculty Handbook. And then voila! A new president was hired and everyone, we imagined, would come to the introductory meeting to get a glimpse of him. So we put our motion on the agenda, and here was the beauty of the whole thing. Because the people who came were people who are too apathetic to ever come to meetings, but made an exception for that one, they were instantly persuaded that we the committee shouldn't have go to meetings either. They voted resoundingly in favor of our motion before a somewhat dumbfounded set of administrative officers who discovered unexpectedly that they were not the boss of us. No sirree.

What was on the table yesterday was something different: how Zenith will close a yawning budget gap that is conservatively predicted at $15 million: read about our problems here. They probably aren't so different from your problems, right? Except if you teach at a public university or a community college your problems are worse.

I won't go into what was said at the meeting, as it is against my blogger ethic. But one of the things I would like to explore in future posts is the nature of community, and scholars' capacity for empathetic connection -- or lack thereof -- to other types of workers in and beyond our workplace. This becomes particularly apparent at a meeting like yesterday's, when it became clear how very tuition driven Zenith is (I have no idea how this compares to other institutions our size); how volatile we can expect our financial aid budget to be in the next few years (or maybe even starting tomorrow); how much the recession may drive other costs up (or down, in the case of fuel, for example); what the long term costs of certain kinds of temporary disinvestment are (Library, physical plant); and how few options a college has to generate immediate, extra cash to cover its expenses, assuming there is anyone to buy what we would offer.

That I can make this list in such a cogent way is some testimony to the presentation we saw yesterday, which was, I would say impressive and reassuring, to the extent that it addresses my basic problem: I don't want to run the university. I want to know that the people in charge are thoughtful, competent and doing the best they know how to do. But of course, what makes the future very anxious for me and many of my colleagues (in varying degrees) is what I did not put on the list: faculty salaries. And while this has not been decided, it looks like salaries will be frozen for next year. Where else do you get $2.3 million? Everybody pitch in and sell a kidney?

Needless to say a projection that salaries may flatline for an indefinite period produces resentment, fear and rage. So in the remainder of this post, I would like to toss out a couple questions that are worth asking yourself as you process your own resentment about your flat salary projection.

Are you being asked to give back salary? And do you live more or less in debt, assuming that there will always be more money? There is no rule anywhere that prevents academics from being asked to take a salary cut. Therefore, you might consider being relieved that you will have the same salary this year as next: whether it will be worth the same amount of money or not is not the question. No one should assume they will always make more money forever. It is this philosophy, writ large, that has brought us to this pass: salaries will always rise, home prices will always go up, endless amounts of debt can be covered (almost) by next year's raise/bonus, increasing the pool of homeowners, by whatever means, is always better. You see what I mean? Rethink this, not just because you might want to lower your blood pressure, but because your life decisions and future happiness shouldn't always be pinned to having a salary that barely matches your expenditures. While you are at it, start watching Suze Orman on television.

I am getting tenure/promoted this year -- what about that big raise I was supposed to get? Well, I think they should find money in the budget to pay this out, frankly, because it will compress salaries in the middle ranks even more than they are compressed already. But don't forget what you will get for tenure -- a job for life. For life. That's more than the part-time clerical they just let go over there has.

In what way do you, really, in your heart, believe that faculty are the most important people in the institution and that everyone else is dispensable? Examine this, OK? Because it is not just that there are a range of people who directly support your professional existence (IT, librarians, more administrative assistants and secretaries than you know about, deans, blah, blah, blah) but actually, it is only rank snobbery that makes you think your work is inherently better than theirs. You need to know this about yourself and work on it.

Do you pay any attention to the general health of the institution, or how money is being misspent, except when your own self-interest is threatened? When was the last time you took an interest in whether the faculty lines authorized really addressed student demand and were worth committing funds to? Or whether you should stop copying the articles assigned to your seminar on the department machine only because you are too lazy to learn how to put them up on line? Or whether it is really ethical to process all of your pleasure reading through your research account? And furthermore -- that dean who you think is one dean too many -- how would you like to deal with the students who are so strung out at the end of the semester that they are endangering their health? Or the bulemia club over at Tau Theta Zeta? That might be a good job for you -- or you -- or you -- and we could save the money next time a dean vacates his or her job.

Isn't letting the administration get away with a salary freeze just lying down and letting them walk all over us? No, keeping your trap shut, repressing your anger at how you are treated, not disagreeing with anyone who might ever vote on your promotion, and never saying or writing anything you believe until you have a tenure letter in your pocket is letting people walk all over you. Agreeing to a salary freeze, when it is explained as part of a well-reasoned plan is sticking out your hand and playing your role as a partner in the enterprise.

The strangest thing I have heard -- and I have heard it from more than one person -- is the narrative of sacrifice, in which a faculty member claims to have chosen university teaching when other, far more lucrative work was possible, but in an act of self-abnegation chose to teach the unwashed masses who seem to cluster regularly at private colleges and universities. Having made this sacrifice, the story goes, no others should be required: nay, this person should receive raises while others near and far, working class and middle class people working in soulless occupations, lose their jobs.

While it is not required of us to be grateful for having jobs as unemployment gallops to new highs, it is worth remembering that life isn't fair. When we are not being rewarded with cash prizes for our accomplishments, it might be a good time to figure out if there are personal rewards other than money that cause you to stay committed to teaching and the production of knowledge. If there are not, I strongly suggest you use the safety of your tenured position to explore another line of work that would make you happy.

If not, my advice is this. Gratitude for your job security isn't required, but it might be seemly. And since this doesn't seem to be widely known, let me just say: being a university teacher is not the moral equivalent of being a priest, a social worker, a member of the Peace Corps, a safe-sex worker or a community activist, in which you have traded affluence to serve others. If you think that is the entire reason why you chose to teach and write you are, frankly, delusional, and suffer from profound status anxiety.

And just think: on that day that you looked at the two lines at Career Planning, one leading to the Graduate Record Exam, and the other leading to an interview with Bear, Stearns, when you followed your heart and became a scholar, the Goddess might have been actually looking out for you.

Don't disappoint her now.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Receiving the Call: What To Do When Scheduling A Conference Interview

There has been so much heartbreak and angst lately about the state of the job market, here and elsewhere, that the Radical has neglected one critical function of this blog: professionalization. This post is aimed indirectly at search committee chairs and mostly at the people who love them. That's right, this one's for you, you lucky folk who will be called to a convention interview sometime between now and the first of the year, primarily in the fields of History and Literature, both of which have their Big Annual Meetings in the next month. What follows is information that you need to elicit in that first telephone contact, or if you haven't --- which is fine -- follow up with an email tomorrow and get it.

Let's begin. You are a person who has applied for a job, and you are at home playing Minesweeper -- er, I mean working on your dissertation. Is that the telephone? (Imagine sound of phone ringing -- brrring! brrring! - or more likely, your cell's ring tone, now cued for the season to the first lines of Culture Club's "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?") Yes it is! You look at the caller ID. It's the area code for Los Angeles/New York/Ann Arbor/Duluth! Omigod. Ok. You answer.

How do you begin crafting their impression of you? What information needs to be exchanged, other than when and where?

Who is on the search committee? While not essential information, this does give you some way of preparing for the interview. Look them up; figure out if you know their work, and think about how your research relates to -- preferably in a complementary, not a redundant way -- their fields of interest. Other than providing the grounds for small talk, knowing who they are will allow you to strategize what to say, and perhaps not say, about yourself. It will also prepare you to connect to people on the committee in the interview itself by crafting logical, conversational connections with them. "As you know from your work on the Cold war, Dr. Strangelove...." might be one verbal gambit for beginning the process of allowing them to imagine you as a colleague. Yes, they are calling because they are interested in you, but you will create a better impression if you appear to be interested enough in them that you have done your homework. They know you want a job next year: what they don't know is if you will be a good fit with the department. As a candidate, the fruits of this labor will not even be apparent to you. When the hotel room door clicks behind you, you want someone on the committee to say something inchoate and spontaneous like, "I can really see him teaching our students," or "Wouldn't she really fit into our department?"

How long will the interview be and how will it be structured? This is the moment to learn as much as you can about how the committee will prune the list of semi-finalists and how much you need to tell them about what. Will it be a half-hour interview, equally divided between teaching and scholarship? Will teaching be the top priority -- or will teaching be one of several topics? If I were you, I would keep a folder by your telephone so that you can look up the precise wording of the advertisement as you are talking to the person who is calling to schedule the interview. If it says "French Revolution" as one of the fields, say maturely, "I'm assuming you will want someone to teach a course on the French Revolution -- would you like me to bring a sample syllabus? Would you like me to sketch it out as a seminar or a lecture course? Or try it both ways?" Then follow this up with: "Are there any other courses I might be regularly responsible for that I should think about prior to the interview? Perhaps the Modern European History Survey?" Ask if they want syllabi faxed in advance. They probably don't, but it makes you sound businesslike, and it would make for a more substantive interview if the committee did review your courses in advance.

As for your scholarship, every search committee will want to hear at least a little something about your research, but this is the time to ask about whether the committee will be interested in talking about your research trajectory as well. Sure, you are finishing your dissertation and your idea of a trajectory may be the path a crumpled page of a draft takes on its way to the waste basket, but there's no time like the present to think of that next project -- particularly if they plan to ask you about it and give you three minutes to answer the question.

Don't act like you are the busiest person in the world and that you are doing the committee a great favor to make time for them. Yes, it's a good idea to slip in that you are giving a paper at the meeting, and that you will be meeting with a series editor from Fancy Eastern University Press. Why not? But don't be elusive or act self-important; don't find some way of letting them know that Ken Wissoker is on your speed dial, or leave the impression that this search committee just got in under the wire of a very busy conference schedule. If you need to reschedule with an editor do so. S/he will understand, believe me, and it's better to do that than make a search committee think you are a diva before they have even met you in person. And don't let slip that you have multiple interviews -- now is not the time to make a school that may end up being your best or only option feel like they may already be your second choice, or worse -- that you are so desirable that it is hardly worthwhile to bring you to campus because you will surely get a better offer.

Make sure you get the search chair's cell phone number. Candidates get lost -- particularly when there are several hotels involved. Several search committees from one place may be using a suite reserved in the name of only one person -- who might not even be on your search committee. It happens. Be prepared.

Make sure that before you start jumping up and down, whooping and hollering "Yabbadabbadoo," that you have actually hung up the phone.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

A Letter To the Academic Proletariat

Many well-wishers wrote in to sympathize with the hazards I encountered mailing recommendations to Ph.D. programs: thank you, I am better. Nothing was broken, and the bruises are fading.

But the pain is only beginning elsewhere. The thought that I was sending more unlucky holders of the B.A. down the chute to the slaughterhouse of graduate school raised this question for frustrated job-seeker and blogging comrade Sisyphus. "Do you ever feel like you shouldn't be sending students on to grad school and contributing to the whole PhD ponzi scheme?" asks this industrious young scholar, who applied for over 60 jobs this year, fifty of which have fallen to budget-cutting. "Esp. when there are all these dire predictions about even undergrad degrees becoming priced out of affordability for the middle class? I'm trying to get an academic job right now and bad as this year is compared to other years, people keep telling me it will just get worse [from] here on out."

I guess my first response is no, I don't feel bad about it, because all education is useful even when you can't extract profit from a degree in the way you originally planned to do so. And my advice is to stay away from these doom-and-gloom types who tell you your life is over without suggesting any viable alternative, particularly if they are members of your dissertation committee. They are only bringing you down at a time you need optimism more than ever.

But back to the question of our mission as educators, which is really what you are asking about, my dear Sisyphus. On Monday, (Not So) New President addressed the value of an undergraduate liberal arts education and its role in creating an innovative, flexible, critically-minded citizenry. "A liberal education remains a resource years after graduation because it helps us to address problems and potential in our lives with passion, commitment and a sense of possibility," he argues. "A liberal education teaches freedom by example, through the experience of free research, thinking and expression; and ideally, it inspires us to carry this example, this experience of meaningful freedom, from campus to community." In this vision, undergraduates become cultural and political workers who fan out into industry, finance, education, community organizations, and all kinds of labor to renew the nation. It isn't just places like Zenith who articulate the value of what they do (because they must, really, it is such a great financial sacrifice for many of our students to come to expensive private schools.) Look on the web pages of most colleges, public and private, and there will be some carefully crafted rationale for the larger social value of an undergraduate degree in fields the chattering classes view as useless: philosophy, literature, classics, women's studies. Individual departments, and professional associations, often feel the need to rethink the answer to questions like: "Why Study History?"

In other words, the liberal arts education is not a trade school, but it prepares students to undertake many trades all the same.

So what happened to graduate schools? When did they become trade schools that prepared students for one thing, and one thing only, teaching college and university? Tragically, perhaps, although colleges and universities have had several periods of dramatic expansion since the 1880's, that has not been the norm: college teaching, I think it is fair to say, is in a prolonged period of stasis interrupted by repeated declensions. Recently, this is because education does not hew easily to neoliberal market models in which an industry only grows through supporting itself and reaping profits for investors. I think it is not insignificant that the university job market flat-lined and then began to shrink in the 1970s, at around the same time when public transportation and the Post Office, two essential public services, were forced to compete in the free market. And then, government more or less abandoned -- then gutted -- higher education in the 1980s as part of a multi-faceted Republican strategy for disempowering young people who had effectively organized as college and university students to promote social and political change after 1945.

That was the end of your job market and the birth of your voluminous adjunct market: the first year I went on the market, 1990, there were three jobs in my field advertised in the American Historical Association's Perspectives. Three. And yes, I taught adjunct for two years before landing a job at Zenith.

I think that it is also worth saying the vast majority of Ph.D. programs do prepare their students for other useful work in the world outside the university, but a handful do not and should probably be held accountable for it by their professional associations -- either that, or the professional associations need to be held accountable for their lack of leadership on this issue. Among this handful of fields that hand out a tin cup with the hood are history and literature; not unreasonably, it is the jobless holding these advanced degrees who have the most to say about their immiseration. And so I feel compelled to answer the question as posed by Sisyphus, who must continue to find some way to feed that darling kitty on her profile page next year.

1. Yes, sometimes I do feel that I should not be sending them on to graduate school, given the bad market. Like your local rabbi, I refuse them three times before accepting them to the faith. And yet, I find that without the help of many History or Lit departments rethinking their role in the world at all, many of my students have made some practical choices. Some are applying to history programs that combine the Ph.D. with a J.D.; others are applying to history and American Studies programs that offer a certificate in public history, museum studies or archives. Some students have used the history or American Studies degree as a leg up into a social science, public health (very popular these days) or a social work degree. In other words, while some of these young people will go on to teach, others will become public intellectuals of one kinds or another.

But I do wonder: how is it that this conversation about the terrible job market has been unfolding for over two decades, and cohort after cohort of graduate students find out to their great surprise after enrolling that there are no jobs? It's never been a secret. But it is something you ignore because you want to be a scholar. Hang onto that, because it is an important thing to know about yourself whatever happens next.

2. Ponzi schemes are utterly fraudulent; graduate school is not. Because the Ph.D. cannot automatically be converted into a cash job reproducing knowledge as a professor doesn't mean that you were cheated of those years. I think one of the toughest things about a bad market is that some people will get jobs, and other, equally qualified, people will not. And frankly, this will be the first time any of you will have failed. That it isn't your fault doesn't lessen the sting and self-doubt that will linger. What is somewhat fraudulent, I would argue, is the failure of graduate schools to adjust your expectations prior to you going on the market, and the lack of responsibility many universities feel for your unemployability while they continue to churn out fresh cohorts of you with equally narrow training and expectations. This is something undergraduate institutions would never get away with: if you leave a private college with a B.A. but without the credentials or skills to get a job, it will be because you successfully evaded an army of well-paid professionals whose only job is to help you do that.

3. Who are these people who are telling you it will get worse? Having all but (by my calculations) 8% of the jobs in your field pulled from the market is pretty bad, in my book, and no, I don't think it will get worse. I think it will get better. Remember that when a job is established, or re-filled, it is budgeted on the understanding that X amount of endowment is available to fund it and/or on projections from the next budget year, and everything is pretty volatile right now. But that doesn't mean things will be good soon enough for you, I'm afraid: you know as well as I do that the half-life of any person on the market is limited. Yet, this is what could change: that beginning at the top -- the Harvards, the Yales, the Princetons, the Michigans -- graduate departments admit that their own hiring processes are discriminatory, and that they discard wonderful applications from people whose only flaw is that they have been on the market for several years. That then might jolt loose a conversation among undergraduate institutions about why we more or less discard applications from people who have never held a tenure-track job, or who have failed to get tenure somewhere else, but whose scholarly record is actually good enough to get them tenure at our institutions had they entered at a conventional time.

Obviously, Sisyphus, this is a complex problem, and I have hardly begun to answer your question. But perhaps my readers will finish the job for me? And don't forget -- you are an amazing writer. All of your readers know that: that is not an unmarketable skill.

Monday, December 01, 2008

"Hey-yay, Wait A Minute Mr. Postman:" When Recommendation Season Is Upon Us

So I’ve got a pain in my side that may indicate a cracked rib. I have a sore toe, a wrist that aches halfway up my forearm, a bump on my head, a throbbing neck, a sharp pain in my lower back and at least one elbow and two knees that are puffy and sore. You get one guess – what am I?

A football player?

Nope. Guess again. Can't?

Liberal arts college professor. And it’s recommendation season. Yep, recommendation season. And as it turns out, this year recommendations are a contact sport.

This is what happened. I was going off to a country house where there was no internet. I decided to push through all my letters of recommendation – eight students, several applying to as many as nine graduate schools -- in two days. Business school, law school, social work school, political science, history, American Studies – I wrote for all of them, sometimes more than one category for a single former student. And they are good kids, really good. How many different ways are there to say that? Well, you try to find as many different ways as there are students, not just because some are applying to the same schools, but because we all know a letter of recommendation is more effective when you can tell a story that captures something unique and special about the person. It is my view that you should be able to do that for each and every student, otherwise you should not agree to write a letter in the first place. That is part of what going to a liberal arts college like Zenith should mean: that a student is taught, known and well remembered as an individual.

But back to why letters of recommendation are a contact sport: first, they require stamina. It takes about an hour to write each one, and another hour, at least, to get all the letters packaged up in different ways for different schools. Now, granted, some deadlines are not until January 1. But some of them are December 1, so I thought, what the heck? Time spent now is time saved later. So I made the big push and got them all done. (Note: all except the request I received today.)

This is where things got rough. Yesterday morning, when my car and my dog were packed for the trip and I was headed out of town, I stopped at the mailbox to drop off the final letter. I left the car running, jumped out, put it in the post box and turned around to get back in my car. What happened then was this, as the Mayor of Munchkinland says in The Wizard of Oz.

Suddenly, huge pain bloomed in the toe of one of my shoes, and my foot stopped dead while my body catapulted forward. Because I had left the car door open (the engine was running, after all), what I saw, to my horror, was the navy blue running board of my car rising swiftly to meet my oncoming head. “Dear God,” I thought, as I flipped to the ground like a two by four in what seemed like slow motion but probably took about a second, “Not my nose again.” It’s been over thirty years since my nose was broken in a lacrosse game, but you never forget that kind of pain, right in the middle of your face. First my knees hit, then an elbow, and then – almost as an afterthought – my head bounced off the car. Somewhere in there I must have tried to catch myself with my other hand – a stupid reflex that seems to be hard-wired into the brain, and often results in broken wrists.

My dog sniffed thoughtfully at my head. I mused (as more pain began to blossom at the various locations described), "I have given all I have to give for my students. I am done. There is no more." I crawled hand over hand into the car and looked over my shoulder: there I saw an odd four inches of rebar, probably left by Stupid Overpriced Electric Company, inexplicably poking above the ground next to the mailbox. This is what had caused all this havoc – that and my bifocals. I can either see straight ahead or down, but not both at once. Had I been looking down I would have seen the rebar -- but then maybe I would have missed the car.

And you didn’t think writing recommendations was a dangerous activity, did you? Hah. OK, seriously, it is not my former students’ fault that I am a bruised and battered mess tonight. It’s some jackass of a telecom worker or sidewalk layer who didn’t finish the job right – hopefully the postal workers’ union will deal with this hazard eventually. But since I can do little else today but nurse my injuries, can the Radical take a moment and complain about what a messy, non-system is currently in place for graduate school recommendations?

I know that those of you who are recommending graduate students to me at the end of their training may feel you have a harder row to hoe. And you do. But let me tell you, this is what you could agitate for to make my life easier, and it might even make your life easier too in the end.

A common application. They do this for college and law school – why not Ph.D. programs too? What is so special about all you guys that you have to ask different, equally ridiculous, questions on each, separate, application? And that is between five and seven per student – it’s not like I am sending a single letter to Interfolio, like you do.

What’s with ranking students by percentages? And in multiple categories? What does that tell you? And how the heck should I know what percentage they belong in? If you are asking about the top 1% of students I have ever taught, I am placing one person in a category that contains approximately 120 other people. For one of my colleagues, with the same number of years of teaching but at about twenty students a semester, 1% makes that student one of a group of about 30 people. Now how does this make for a useful comparison? Furthermore, I am clearly supposed to recalculate where this student stands for every application, since for some of you it is 1-2% for my career; for others it is top 5% for a period of my own choosing. This is not information. This is a crap shoot, and I don’t believe you even take these numbers seriously yourselves.

Do you know how much time it takes me to fill in my name and address over, and over and over? Jesus. And why do you ask for my phone number? Not once in sixteen years has anyone called me about a graduate school recommendation I have written. Not once.

Could you all get on the same page about how you want to receive the application? Some of you do it electronically, although not all of you use the same company. Some have me send it directly to you. Others want it sent back to the student, signed over the flap, something I really hate, because then you have to worry about whether the student receives it in time, and because it is nearly impossible to produce a legible signature over an envelope flap. And how would you know it was me? Really? Do you have my signature on file? You do not. But this is only slightly more ridiculous than the electronic “signature” I am asked to produce over and over. Which is not a signature. It is just typing.

While you are mulling over all these suggestions, feel free to send me boxes of anti-inflammatories. You have my address -- it's right there, on the letter.