Once More Unto the Breach

October 15, 1999

In late December of 1996, I was sitting in a bar in Washington, D.C., with five or six other graduate students from the English department at Northwestern University. We were all sharing jokes and horror stories about the four-day convention we were momentarily escaping from, the Modern Language Association's annual meeting.

I remember sipping slowly at a beer, gazing absent-mindedly at the high ceilings and graffiti-splashed walls of the bar, and feeling like I was one of the lucky ones. Unlike several of my colleagues, who had come up empty-handed, I had managed to land the prize we had all traveled to our nation's capital in search of: I had a job interview.

That was the source of my pride and self-satisfaction: at the major conference for my discipline, I had managed to secure one interview. One interview. For a non-tenure-track one-year position. Outside of my field. At a small university in northern Ohio.

The awful part was that in some ways I had reason to be proud, at least in relation to my immediate barroom colleagues. Most of them were further along in their dissertations than I was, and others had more marketable dissertation topics and vastly more teaching experience than I did.

The offer for that one-year position never came, but later that year another opportunity arose almost completely out of the blue. I had spent some time that academic year helping out at my university's Center for Teaching Excellence, which sponsored lectures, conducted workshops, and pursued research on teaching and learning in higher education. My role was to work with the director in maintaining and developing programs for teaching assistants while the center conducted a search for an assistant director who would assume those responsibilities full-time.

In the late spring, I became aware that my name had been entered into the list of candidates for that position; in the early summer, the director of the center offered me the job. In addition to the work I would be doing with teaching assistants, the position offered me the opportunity to teach one course a year for the English department, and the chance to pursue research and publish on teaching and learning.

Perhaps equally important, the three-year contract offered me and my wife -- and our 1-year old baby -- something we desperately wanted: the chance for some stability, for two steady incomes, for a house, and for the continued pleasures of life in Chicago.

So I took the job. I found the work fascinating and fulfilling, and still do. The job has given me an incredibly broad perspective on the business in which we are all engaged, and I find nothing more stimulating than analyzing and reflecting upon the teaching and learning that take place in disciplines and programs far removed from my own.

The cross-fertilization of ideas and the interdisciplinary nature of the work -- the sometimes startling new perspectives on teaching literature that I get from studying the teaching of physics, for example -- have made these last two years both intellectually challenging and fulfilling.

Within the past year, though, two passions have slowly but firmly begun to reassert themselves in my intellectual life: my interest in studying and teaching literature, and my desire to work with students on a more regular basis. The study of literature has always been my first love, and even when I am working with professors or T.A.'s from the mathematics department, questions about how their ideas might relate to the teaching of literature are never far from my mind.

And while I enjoy working with graduate students and faculty colleagues, nothing can compare to working with young people who are poised at a unique moment in their transition to adulthood. For many of them, it will be the last time in their lives when they have the luxury to think and care about ideas.

So this fall, I'm heading back into the fray.

Launching an attack on the job market -- military metaphors seem only appropriate in the current job climate -- from a position of employment within academia, even an administrative appointment like my own, is a much-different animal from launching a search as a graduate student. I no longer breathe that air of quiet desperation and enforced insouciance.

An unsuccessful search doesn't mean spending another year with my life on hold, it doesn't mean another year of scrambling for part-time employment to supplement the paltry income of an adjunct lecturer, and it doesn't mean carving out precious hours from part-time jobs and time with my family to subdue a recalcitrant dissertation.

I am hopeful about this run at the market. I have applied for only two jobs since I have been in my present position, and have landed two campus interviews and one job offer. The offer came from an urban institution in Chicago that wanted me to establish and direct a center for teaching and learning on its campus.

That offer prompted some serious soul-searching, the final result of which was my conviction that I was not yet prepared to give up the dream of obtaining a regular faculty position in English. Accepting that job would have meant taking another step down an administrative path from which it would have been increasingly difficult to turn back.

Even so, turning down that appointment, in today's academic job market, was a decision I rethink on a weekly basis. One of the best memories of my life is standing under an elevated train track outside an expensive restaurant in downtown Chicago, just out of a dinner with eight faculty members and deans from that college, the ground covered with snow and ice, hearing the dean in charge of the job search tell me how wonderfully I had performed, and that she would be calling me with an offer the following morning.

One of the worst memories of my life was having to call her back a week later and turn down a permanent position in Chicago and a $10,000-a-year raise in exchange for a possible tenure-track position in my field this fall. A bird in the hand ...

But I remain convinced -- perhaps against all evidence and good sense -- that I made the right decision. I've made no secret of my intention to have another run at the job market, and several administrative colleagues have hinted that my ardent desire for a tenure-track faculty position may simply be a case of infatuation for what I cannot have. Life as a faculty member, they assure me, carries about the same balance of burdens and rewards as does the life of an administrator; the rewards of that other life seem more attractive to you now because they're out of your reach.

All I can offer in response to that is that I didn't spend six years of my life studying for administrative work. I spent those six years studying literature, and what sustained me through that long and lean period was the dream of a particular kind of life, a life that would keep me in daily contact with the questions, issues, and ideas that had come to matter so dearly to me.

In a few months I'm going to give that dream another chance.

James M. Lang is assistant director of the Searle Center for Teaching Excellence

at Northwestern University. He will be recounting his experiences on the job market over the next several months.