A Little Calcitrance

by zunguzungu

Blogging has slowed down, if you haven’t noticed, because I’ve just emerged from the academic job market (unsuccessful, but still in one piece), and that experience does weird things to your psyche, your day-to-day functioning, and your outlook on the future. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that. Also, I’ve had a cold for something like 85 weeks — this fact is not unrelated — and the virus just does not want to let me go. But I wanted to pass this article along, since she is absolutely right that “one of the least-acknowledged aspects of the job market” is that “it is incredibly time-consuming”:

As candidates, we write cover letters tailored to each institution, craft two-page dissertation or book abstracts alongside writing samples, compose statements about our philosophy of teaching that take into account the needs of different institutions, and develop syllabi that line up with each department’s ideas about its major.

Candidates who make it to a first-round interview spend countless hours doing research on the faculty members and curricula of the departments and imagining answers to questions about how their research, teaching, and personalities might fit. If candidates are selected for a campus visit, they write job talks and prepare teaching demonstrations that meet the unique requirements of each search committee. And then applicants spend one or more days visiting each campus, where meetings, presentations, receptions, and meals make each day a 12-hour slog of “being on.”

I discovered that failed spring that I had spent so much time writing about my research and teaching that I hadn’t spent as much time as I should have doing either of those things. If I wanted to be competitive on the market, I was told, I needed to get another article out, seek out more external grants, develop more new courses, and find even more opportunities for professional service.

But if you want to have a new publication or a new course on your CV for the next hiring season, you need to have those materials ready to go just as the last job market is spiraling into its death spin. And by then, you are already behind if you take into account the deadlines for getting new courses approved, or the four-to-six month review period for journals, or the possibility that an article will be rejected or require revision and resubmission.

April must be the cruelest month for unsuccessful job candidates. It’s like finding out that you have to run a sprint after you’ve just run a marathon.

This is close to how I’m feeling. Of course, this was only my first year “out” and I return to a reasonably secure position in Berkeley; life, for me, is still quite good and I’m not complaining, not really. But it’s such a waste, this entire experience. I know the world doesn’t particularly value what academics do, but the social good of compelling graduate students to spend hundreds of hours  crafting a persona, rather than its substance (not to mention the equal number of unproductive hours occasioned by stress and anxiety), well, there isn’t any. It may or many not be worse than what all job seekers must do — certainly it isn’t substantively different in its broad contours — but it’s still a particularly pointless exercise: what limited good there is in the process (in terms of making you assess and clarify the purpose of your work) is more than cancelled out by the massive amount of time you have to take from actually doing that work (not to mention the psychic tax on the energy and enthusiasm for the work that you desperately need).

And since the academic job market is changing so quickly, it’s worth noting that we’re reaching a point where this pointless exercise is not just normal, but unavoidable and omnipresent, a years-long rite of passage that every academic has to spend their formative period engulfed by. As the job market has contracted — we’re talking about the number of jobs dropping to a quarter of what they were a few years ago — the chances of getting a job without spending years of your life spinning in this wheel is diminishing to negligible. All the people I know who have gotten jobs were going on the market for at least the second time, which means that you don’t just spend one six month period being consumed with one of the most pointless activities the universe could have concocted for you — writing about the things you do, such that you have much less time to actually do them but you go through this cycle again and again. And since you’re competing against people who are three, four, five years ahead of you in the process — people who got jobs in places they didn’t like, or just post-docs, and who are therefore returning to the market — you can see your future stretching ahead of you in the competition you can’t, yet, out-compete, because you haven’t failed enough.

Again, I say this not to complain. I’m well aware that this is 2011, and that nobody who’s not a possessor of a reasonable quantity of finance capital is doing particularly well. It could be a lot worse for me, and it is, in fact, a lot worse for most people. I like my life. In fact, I want to emphasize that I’m not complaining or playing for sympathy, because I want those of us who are academics to think, just for a moment, about what this does to the collective psyche of an entire profession, the way it really is becoming the foundational experience that unites us all: if you are not being stewed by this process, you are busily stirring the pot; if you aren’t wasting your time crafting a persona to seduce a hiring committee with work that you are therefore not able to take time to do, then you are probably on hiring committees, and have  a vested interest in not thinking too clearly about how the sausage gets made. Survivor’s guilt is a potent force, after all.

This is why cynicism is such a great way of deflecting the uncomfortable feelings this whole process provokes, for both sides. And which is why we have to guard from it. Far from being “realistic,” cynicism gives you an excuse not to think about the problem, or deal with it. For example, by refocusing on the imaginary fantasy of the naive PhD candidate who thinks he/she should be handed a TT job just because of how special he/she is, or by sadly shaking your head and playing the game of “more aware of how shitty it is than thou,” we convert an institutional stupidity into a social drama, a disciplinary socialization which we learn to perform to our peers. We transform ourselves to fit the factory, rather than putting our bodies on the gears.

On the one hand, by focusing the power of our contempt on the person who doesn’t  know what it’s really like — or refuses to believe — we get to take our focus off the stupidity of those realities. The harsh reality becomes, instead of a problem we all have to own and take responsibility for, a thing which can be safely blamed on the people who suffer from it, and who are — by their refusal to accept it — coded as ignorant, naive (not victims). And on the other hand, doing the thing of trying to demonstrate that you’re deeply, deeply realistic about the process — that you really know how shitty it is — allows us to pretend that it’s a given thing, that it’s unavoidable, that it’s just the way it is. That it is not, in fact, a thing which was made by human beings and could also be changed by them, that the fact it lacks any coherent rationale doesn’t seem, any longer, to be a damning indictment of it.

This is worth saying, periodically. No one would have planned a system of professionalization which involved — right in the middle of what would be, for most scholars, their most productive period — a indeterminately years-long process of pointless, existential limbo. No one ever said to themselves:

“You know what would really prepare young scholars for their profession? Making them periodically put their work on hold, for unpredictable and unknowable periods of panic and fear and self-loathing. And also, make them focus all their efforts on pretending to be doing important work — rather than actually doing it — so that the work itself comes to seem like a game of self-representation, rather than real intellectual labor.”

Yet the fact that this is an incredibly stupid and pointless process can so easily scan — through the framework of “realism” — as a thing which you survive not by changing, but by accepting. Idealism (or a refusal to accept) comes to be naive, ignorance, laughable. We have to be realistic about it, you know? And if you start to suggest that maybe another way might be possible, preferable, you will find yourself told that even if you get a job, it only gets worse…

I don’t have anything new to offer, I suspect. I have no power to change this system, nor do most of the people implicated in it, which is exactly the problem. We don’t know how to make the machine work any more, if we ever did. But I do want to register — at least once — that being aware of the some of the pointlessness inhumanities required by this system — of showing at least a recalcitrance of the will to what our bodies and our wallets require us to accept — is an important first step towards enabling the tiny and few and desperately necessary little gestures we’re still capable of making.