Academic Bait-and-Switch, Part 13

Brian Taylor

March 30, 2011

When I secured a tenure-track job at Locally Known College, and a couple of hundred other applicants didn't, I felt neither pride nor survivor's guilt.

Those emotions are so common in academe that people may assume I am a sociopath. Let me assure readers: I do feel satisfaction if I accomplish something difficult through my own efforts, but that doesn't describe my experiences on the academic job market. And I do feel remorse if I deliberately do something to hurt another person. If I'd sent anonymous letters to the hiring committee at Locally Known College accusing other candidates of plagiarism, I would feel guilty, but I committed no such crime.

How could I gain a tenure-track position and feel neither pride nor guilt? Let me begin by confessing that, initially, I had a rather absurd model for understanding the job market, a model that sprang from an incident in fifth grade. One day the teacher, Ms. Trasparente, announced that she would give a library-discard book to the student who got the highest grade on a reading test. When she tallied the scores, Ms. Trasparente discovered that another child and I had earned perfect marks, so she said to the two of us, "Choose a number between one and 10."

I thought for a moment and said, "Four."

Ms. Trasparente exclaimed, "It's four exactly!"

I felt smug, but not because I'd won a tattered book. The reading test had been on a story in which the number four figured prominently, Ms. Trasparente had just graded 30 tests about that story, and she was rather predictable, so I chose four. I'd seen through the contest.

The triumphs of childhood curse the rest of our days. Years later, when I had my B.A., I believed I could outsmart the job market. The notion that a small-town hick with a degree from Flyover College could outmaneuver something as complex as the academic job market was inexcusably foolish. Repeated disappointment while earning a master's degree in English at Elite National University should have knocked that idea out of me, but I remained convinced.

When I realized that the doctoral program at Elite National had a dismal placement record, I decided to earn my Ph.D. in a program that provided serious training in how to grade mountains of essays and balance three course preps while remaining active as a scholar. But I couldn't find one. So I sought out a program that I hoped might lead to full-time employment. But when I asked directors of various graduate programs about their placement records, they all refused to speculate on their students' chances in the job market. I understood that past performance doesn't guarantee future results, as they say about mutual funds, but I wanted some basis for judgment.

Having majored in English, I felt willing to accept anecdotal evidence, and I assumed that the best would come from graduate students. The director at Solipsistic University gave me vague information about a recent graduate who had just gotten a tenure-track position at a small college in a distant state. Eager to make the contact, I shot an inquiry to the departmental secretary at that college, only to learn that it had no new hires, and that no one in the department had a degree from Solipsistic University. Eventually I discovered that the graduate actually taught at a different college. That graduate director's mistake puffed up my silly ego: With a little legwork, I could win this game, just like that fifth-grade reading contest.

I contacted graduate students at places like Sisyphus University and Slough of Despond University. They told tales of people laboring for years on the market but ending up empty-handed. There was one exception: A graduate student at Lateral Move University said of her program, "It's OK." I wouldn't buy a used car with that endorsement, but "It's OK" sounded like high praise compared with the comments I was hearing about other programs. The person from Lateral Move U. went on to tell about recent graduates who had secured tenure-track jobs at liberal-arts or community colleges.

Eventually I sent out six applications to doctoral programs and received four acceptances. The place my professors at Elite National U. urged me to attend, Well-Known University, offered me not a cent of financial aid. I decided against it because going into debt to earn a doctoral degree in the humanities looked as foolish as taking out loans to buy lottery tickets. The other three institutions awarded teaching assistantships. Acceptable offers came from Callous University and Egocentric University, but the most money and best prospects for continuing aid came from Lateral Move U.

When I came to the end of my training and began applying for tenure-track jobs, I took the time to look up the names and course designations of classes that I would teach at each institution, if hired. In my cover letters, instead of stating, "I've taught umpteen sections of first-year composition," I wrote, "If I taught your English 101 'The Sentence Is Our Buddy' course ...." In my first year on the job market, that focused approach garnered only one interview at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, while during the second year it snared several campus visits—which I blew decisively.

My on-campus interview at one place, Locally Known College, went differently. When I met the faculty, we chatted easily and I managed not to offend anyone, or at least not so much that they let on. After I returned home, I wrote thank-you letters in which I commented on a specific issue that the recipient of my letter had raised during my interview. Then I waited.

At some point in my job quest, I realized that I was delaying life rather than living it. I existed paycheck to paycheck, imagining some disaster that I had no resources to cover. I had nothing to look forward to outside of full-time employment, so at the same time that I responded to academic ads, I applied for other jobs.

I interviewed for one of those jobs, a position that involved welcoming first-year undergraduates to Lateral Move University, arranging social events, and solving problems for them. I knew quite a bit about the frustrations and fears of first-year students, since I'd been teaching them for years, but the job went to another candidate. I lacked the exuberance that the interviewers sought, and I hadn't been an undergraduate at the university. If first-year students asked about my own undergraduate experiences, I would describe my days at tiny Flyover College, where I got far more attention from professors than any student could expect at Lateral Move, and paid thousands of dollars less. I wasn't the person to convince first-years that they'd made a good move by leaping into hopeless debt to attend our institution.

Not long afterward, Locally Known College offered me a tenure-track job. The salary was startlingly low, and the teaching involved many course preps, but the job gave me the opportunity to step out of adjunct poverty. For a couple of days I told myself that I'd gamed the system, and I felt the smugness that comes from complete conviction in a thoroughly stupid idea. Eventually, however, the truth deflated my pride.

That truth: The academic job market was beyond my control. I couldn't make jobs appear any more than I could carry on a two-way conversation with a 6-foot-tall, invisible rabbit named Harvey. I also couldn't control my competition. I don't doubt that other people on the job market could do as well as I do at Locally Known College, or better.

My interviewers at the college simply liked me better than the other two candidates they had invited to campus. Or perhaps they preferred the others, but those two accepted better offers elsewhere, and the hiring committee's desire not to interview more people outweighed my shortcomings.

Since I got the job by chance, I feel neither pride nor guilt about it. I do, however, have a better model for the academic job market than my library-book triumph in fifth grade.

Around the same time that I won that book, a fast-food restaurant in my hometown held a contest with a bright-red bicycle as the grand prize. The contest involved no skill. People simply bought food and received game cards with little scratch-off dots on them. With youthful optimism I scratched dots off many cards and eventually won a free order of fries, but the bicycle went to another boy. I couldn't scratch dots on game cards any better than the winner could, and I doubt he could outscratch me. Even if one of us had been the LeBron James of scratchers, it would've made no difference. The other boy just got lucky.

On the academic job market, I just got lucky.

(Editor's Note: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12 of this series are online.)

Henry Adams is the pseudonym of a faculty member at a small liberal-arts college in the Midwest.