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A Sense of Camaraderie

November can be a long month for academic job seekers, perhaps the time when academe seems coldest. With several fields holding their national conferences shortly after the holidays, many applicants will know in these first weeks of December if they will have an opportunity to interview. Until then we wait and practice the morbid algebra of the market: x ads minus y internal candidates, divided by the number of qualified applicants equals … well, it’s not pretty. In the anonymous space of job wikis or the comments streams of The Chronicle’s blogs, job seekers seem suspicious, jaded, angry, arrogant, and entitled by turns, but more than anything else our worrying strikes me as deeply lonely, quick to pit the individual against a faceless system. It’s when I read our posts that I feel most isolated from my peers and colleagues.

By contrast, I had a profound experience of community in my field this past July when I participated in the annual Sewanee Writers’ Conference. The gathering lasted 12 days, and between readings, panels, and workshops that boast some of the nation’s best writers, attendees shared living space in student suites and ate together in the university dining hall. By design, the Sewanee conference is also relatively small, so participants actually get to know one another. I made real friends there, shared my work, and engaged deeply with the writing of others. In short, I had something like the experience idealized in conference brochures.

Even while I was there though, I found myself thinking about what made the gathering so intimate and refreshing. Certainly the conference’s length and setting played a role, but on another level I attribute the spirit of camaraderie to the conference’s fellows and staff, authors usually of one or two books, many of them academic job seekers themselves or assistant professors in the early parts of their careers. To say that they invested in the younger and less-experienced attendees would be an understatement. Many of them spent their down time meeting with members of their workshops to discuss drafts, to offer suggestions and encouragement, or just to share a beer. Perhaps most importantly, their affability seemed motivated by genuine interest. They had little to gain professionally from the relationships they were building, and their example has made me mindful of a fine distinction: There’s a difference between certain self-serving “networking” and truly generous contribution to an intellectual community.

We often talk of a spirit of shared vocation in our fields, but I rarely see such fellowship meaningfully expressed in academic settings. Maybe I’m simply looking in the wrong places though. Or perhaps as a job seeker I am particularly sensitive to the limits of collegiality these days. When was the last time you had a significant experience of community in your guild? How are your field’s grad students and younger scholars being encouraged? What ways have you found to develop professional camaraderie in and beyond your home institution?

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