On Jobs, and Tenure, and Other Things
I haven't posted this before, because so much has been happening that I wanted to roll into it, including every new post on the job market and the Amy Bishop story and how people have decided to use the violent behaviour of a woman who clearly seems to have come unhinged to critique the tenure system. Honestly, though, every time I started to write, something new has happened. Plus, honestly, there has been a lot happening in my department and at SLAC that have been taking up a lot of time, not least the work that has to be done when you want to re-vamp a program, plus keeping up with the tracking of assessment figures, writing rubrics, cajoling colleagues into agreeing that, if they are teaching the same course, the course should be at least minimally consistent, checking to make sure that the information for the department in the university catalogue is correct. Oh, and now some other report that has to be done that I suspect will lead to my department being lumped into a larger program. In the meantime, I'm teaching 4 courses and am just a little busy. So please, bear in mind that I'm writing on a Friday night when my choice this or marking essays :-) Or, as a furry person on the arm of sofa would tell you, I could be playing with cats.
So I'm just going to post what I've got. I think I've mentioned it here before, but I'm in the post-tenure slump. So I have all sorts of mixed feelings when I read posts and comments castigating those of us who have jobs for not warning the people who don't about how they weren't properly warned about the job market, or how much they resent the years spent in grad school. So I will now say this one thing: I began graduate school over 20 years ago. I went thinking all sorts of things, and not knowing how lucky I was that I had four, probably five years of guaranteed funding. But then, no one in my family had ever gone to grad school; only two had had more than two years of college. I wouldn't have gone, had I not had funding. And even then, I was not ever told, either at Beachy U, where I saw friends who were grad students on the market, and or at Grad U, that we would all have jobs. It was, however, implied that if we were as good as we should be, we would have them. Still, it was never a guaranteed thing, and it was always clear that in order to have a proper chance at the brass ring, we needed to get through and finish and present and publish.
Flash forward 13 years -- or nine years ago, more or less. When I first started to participate in the online community of scholars, the conversations centered on the job market, more or less. And honestly, there was so very much information out there about and by people who were barely making it as adjuncts, worried and frustrated by how much of their lives had been given to grad school and living in a sort of semi-adult status, that one could easily have thought that there was not any good point in going to grad school at all. That was then, long enough ago that, if the people now complaining had looked, or known to look, if they had talked to other students in their programs, they should have had inklings of the risks of going to grad school and expecting a job.
So from where I sit, I do have a hard time with the "but nobody told me" argument. This is for two reasons: one is that, honestly, I cannot imagine anyone paying to go to grad school, except in countries where bursaries or fellowships are incredibly rare (and tuition relatively low in any case); the other is that, if you are a person who didn't pay, then you got the luxury of going to grad school. I mean, yes, it's in many ways packed with all sorts of hazing rituals of its own, but really -- the ability to go and study and research and get paid for it? And even ABD historians get some mad job skills out of it that they can apply to other fields. And that leads me to another thing that sort of stumps me: people lose their jobs and suffer unemployment all the time. I have been the casualty of corporate downsizing and the dotcom bust. X has been laid off, and retrained and learned new computer skills several times. My father suffered an on-the-job injury in his thirties that meant not doing what he loved, and having to re-train and find new kinds of work.
These things happen to people all the damned time. So tell me, my academic friends, why shouldn't it happen to you? Oh, because you are smart and privileged, and somehow that has given you a big ball of entitlement that has ended up dragging you down, rather than giving you strength. And that's a shame. It's always worth something. The sacrifice, and the experiences? They count.
It's not that I don't understand the hell that is the job search, by the way. I do. I went through four years of job applications and interviews that did get me adjunct and visiting positions, but not the T-T job. I was even offered a T-T job I'd applied for, but only after they had changed it to a visiting position so they could hire someone else in a different position. Um ... no. But it hasn't been all that long since I was applying for 20-35 positions a year. Oh -- and that's not a sign that the job market was better, by the way. I just applied for a lot of generalist Community College and SLAC positions as well as the very few in my specialty. And I could legitimately apply for them, because I somehow had the good sense to have made sure that my coursework was broad -- I had fields in Early Modern and Asian History, so I could apply to Ancient/Medieval and to Medieval/Early Modern, plus positions like the one I have now, where I am the only non-Americanist in my department. That sort job-market investment, on top of a 5-5 load and, the last year, a divorce, is damned hard. It's scary and bad and some search committees are hugely incompetent or insensitive. Even some of the ones who are trying to do their best are sometimes just awful. I once had a call at ten o'clock at night about a job, a week after my campus visit. When they told me they were calling to let me know that I didn't get it, I hung up the phone and cried. I mean really, who calls and gives you bad news like that? And yet it was in many ways far more considerate than the letters I've never got -- including the one I never got from a noted university this year, telling me I'd not made the cut, or that the job had been filled. It hurts. You feel horribly rejected, even though part of you knows it may not have been you. I know people who got jobs I applied for, and honestly, I know why they got them, but sometimes I think, "you know, I still think I was a better fit." But then so could others have been.
So why am I writing this now? Because I'm going to say something else that probably will annoy some of you, but that I think sometimes needs saying. This job is not a bed of roses. It is hard work. Read any academic life blog, and you will see evidence that many of us, especially the women, struggle to balance just our academic lives, and gods help us if we try to juggle home, family, and partner (and, as someone just reminded me, Cats!). Many of us, if not most of us, work 40-60 hours a week, just to keep up. Some people are definitely better at it than others. Some of us have heavy loads. Most of the people I know think it's worth the stress, the politics, the heavy service and teaching loads -- because in return we can do the things we love, at least some of the time. I honestly don't want to do anything else. But some of us do burn out, or decide that the costs are too high. And that's fine. They haven't wasted their lives. They've just moved on. We do.
When I was looking for a thesis topic, my Doktorvater told me to pick something I could love and live with for at least twenty years, because the average academic's relationship to her research lasted longer than the average US marriage. And that's true. And in that way, I also understand the grief that some people are feeling, and the resentment that they have expressed toward some of my colleagues. Going through grad school and not getting a job is in some ways like having to decide whether or not to end a relationship. You get to the point where you have to decide whether or not you can put in just one more year, that maybe you can salvage it. And the longer you stay in, the more you have invested, and the harder it is to break up. And when you do, even if it's a good decision, you grieve.
But it doesn't mean that those of us who have the stable (or stable-looking) relationship don't know we're fortunate. And it doesn't mean that it's easy. And some days, it really is so hard, physically and mentally, that it's difficult not to look at things with a somewhat jaded eye. And a little survivor guilt. As I said, I love what I do. I work for an institution I like, and I have a fantastic dean and provost, and some tremendous colleagues. I have some of the nicest students I've met, and working with many of them is incredibly rewarding. I get tons of support, and feel constantly worried that I won't live up to expectations. And I often think that there are any number of other people who could do my job. But you know? I'm not going to apologize for having it, just as, when I hear stories of other people's searches, I am not going to gloat. It is what it is.