Two Friends, One Opening

February 10, 2004

I don't see my best friend from graduate school much these days, but every once in a while we meet and have lunch. Over margaritas and hot sauce, we appraise our academic careers (or lack thereof), compare family responsibilities, deride husbands, and generally gossip.

We were inseparable for years. Meeting in our first graduate seminar -- I was a new doctoral student, she was starting her master's -- we instantly bonded. The only women in a room full of male historians, we learned we had much in common. Our research interests paralleled, and we spoke together on dozens of conference panels. In many ways we became quite the package, joking that if you bought one of us, you got the other one free.

Last fall, we met for one of our margarita-soaked lunches. By the time the waiter delivered the fajitas, our conversation had started to sizzle. Who was approaching the 10-year plan on her dissertation? Who had bailed completely? Who had gained a serious amount of weight stressing over his comprehensive exams?

Our academic circle is small, so we marveled at our own dietary successes. She had tried Atkins; I had gone for the South Beach diet; we both had lost weight.

I tried to explain the hardships of adjunct work. She had just finished her first adjunct teaching job, and was justifiably disillusioned. She didn't think she could do it, and I understood because I had been adjuncting for the past two years.

This spring, she will officially become a Ph.D., so naturally, the conversation turned to the job ads. Both of our job searches are geographically bound to the same city by family issues -- I have children, and she has aging parents -- so it didn't take long for us to realize that we had both highlighted the same announcements, and we had reached the same conclusion: There was only one tenure-track position opening in our field in our city this year.

I told her that I planned to apply. She said the same. The jalapeños lost their heat.

I felt betrayed, and then I couldn't believe how petty I was. There would probably be hundreds of applicants for the job. The likelihood that it would come down to the two of us was remote.

Our conversation moved on, but I started making a mental checklist. We would probably ask the same people for recommendations. I'd better e-mail them this afternoon because they couldn't recommend us both. What did I have on my CV that she didn't? Did she have something that I didn't? What could I do to separate myself from her? To make myself look better than her?

What happened to the dynamic duo?

I've wondered if there is any room for congeniality in academe. Have the strangled job market and the tournament of tenure killed cooperation? I like to imagine that some golden time of intellectual sympathy existed; a time when faculty members gathered, pondering the meaning of the universe late into the night. Sure, I'll admit I'm naïve, but it's that dream of like minds sharing intellectual interests that first pulled me into academic work and kept me there despite the dire and true warnings that I would probably never make a living from my history degrees.

I don't want to compete with these people; I want to share with them. I like being with people who don't give me a strange look when I mention John Winthrop in a conversation about our government's presence in Iraq. OK, I like being with people who just know who John Winthrop was. I need that intellectual companionship, and I want it from my colleagues.

Maybe my friend and I were unique in that we were able to form a noncompetitive relationship at all during our graduate work. In theory, we should have been competing back then, but instead, we worked together and reinforced each other's findings in our independent research on the same general topic. It felt good to know that I was not alone in my pile of microfilm.

So, have we both applied for the same job? I haven't gotten up enough nerve to call and find out if she sent in her application. I finished and mailed mine. Maybe I should have worried more about the competition that I don't know, but competing against the faceless just seems like life. I don't know them, but I do know that my friend is an excellent scholar, and if I weren't chosen for the position, I couldn't think of anyone who deserved it more.

I took my time writing my cover letter and massaging my CV. I had to find some way to stand apart from my friend while still being respectful of all the research work we had done together. I decided that the direct and honest approach felt right. I told the search committee about me -- about what makes me unique as a scholar and a teacher.

I described the growth I had undergone as a teacher since my days as a TA in graduate school. "Student centered" may be a hot catch phrase in pedagogical circles, but I have truly embraced the idea of myself as a facilitator. I don't give midterms. I don't give finals. Instead, my students spend four months with me working on becoming better thinkers, without the pressure of the grade always looming over their shoulders. Sure, participation-based classes skew the bell curve at the end of the semester, but I have found that student interest and retention of the material soar along with their grades.

I've also discovered that my students are not so different from me. Many of them came to the university hoping for a transformative learning experience. Instead, they discovered that college was about making grades. They wanted collegiality and cooperation as much as I did. They wanted to work with me, to grow as scholars with me, and I knew as I wrote the cover letter that the change in the way I viewed my role as a teacher did separate me from my friend.

While we may appear similar on paper, we are very different people. My friend and I may not be a two-for-one package anymore, but I still enjoy our cooperative relationship. Maybe our adviser could write a letter of recommendation for both of us. More objective, he might see the differences and value in each of our work, separately and as individuals and not just as a team.

I think that I may have been wrong that day in the cafe. I'm not competing against my friend for a job, I'm just trying to show a department what a dedicated and incredibly passionate scholar and teacher I am. Maybe it's time to share a few margaritas.

Kelly McMichael is a Ph.D. in history who is on the academic job market in the South.