Welcome to the first installment of "Ice Skating in Hell," the pop-up column I’ll be writing for the next few months. After four years absent from the search for a tenure-track position — four loud, sometimes frightening, eventful years — I, the alleged angriest academic apostate in the history of academic apostates (and that’s saying something), am Going Back Out There.
Have I suffered a stroke?
Not that I know of, although the current sociopolitical milieu certainly affords me enough daily rage that it’s not outside the realm of possibility. But I’m relatively certain that I’m of sound mind — and yes, I’m the last person that you might expect to re-embark, voluntarily, on a process that destroyed me psychologically.
In fact, the strategy of all the fiery public feelings-sharing I did was what I’ve called the Rilke-needle-in-the-heart technique. In The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, the title character narrates the common premodern practice of perforating the heart of someone who was probably dead (or mostly dead) to make sure they wouldn’t accidentally be buried alive.
When I was first on the market, many of my associates begged me not to do anything Google-able, in case a search committee stumbled upon it and I might be outed as someone who did not view the system of academic hiring as a just meritocracy. Four-and-zero-jobs years later, I viewed my academic career as the corpse that it was, thanked them for their opinions, and then stuck the needle through my own heart.
And yet, here I am, doing this for real, again. The first thing I had to do, of course, was send my old letter-of-recommendation writers the last email they would ever expect from me. To a person, they still agreed to connect their good names to my own in the hagiography-industrial complex. And one individual, whom I’ll call "Dr. Yes," has made it a personal mission to reacclimate me to this peculiar world.
As any good mentor would, Dr. Yes asked to read over the first draft of my cover letter, and proclaimed it "too terse." It was short, explained little, and primarily communicated in subtext: I won’t yammer on in this letter because you people on the search committee either: (a) know who I am and are thus interested, (b) know who I am and are thus revolted, or (c) don’t know who I am so I will have the same one-in-a-zillion chance as all the other schmucks. I guess that was the wrong way to go about crafting a cover letter?
"You didn’t explain why — or even that — you really want this," Dr. Yes pointed out. "The prevailing opinion will be that you don’t belong in academia any longer." But the more I "play the part" of a real academic who really wants to be in the field, Dr. Yes added, "the more reassuring that will be" to hiring committees. (Note: I received Dr. Yes’s blessing to report our conversations, and will not print any communication from this job search, helpful or excoriating, without explicit permission.)
Dr. Yes had a point. In fact, my largest beef with academe is that it has long been a profession that demands inerrant fealty from even its most fringe adherents. In the humanities at least, the prevailing wisdom is that one must sacrifice everything — but expect nothing — to qualify for a sliver’s chance at something. How am I supposed to "play the part" while still remaining true to my convictions?
For what it’s worth, I do want to be a professor. I always have. (I don’t have to "want" to be a scholar again, because I never stopped being one. Boo-ya!) Although I made the right decision at the time, I was heartbroken to leave academe. I’m mindful of the damaging rhetoric of "vocation" as an enabling device, one that entices people to live in their cars, or work as escorts, because they "love" the life of the mind too much to stop. At the same time, the frank truth is that I do feel called to the classroom, and I always have. Not just because I haven’t felt right — haven’t felt like I was truly offering the best work I have to offer the world — since I taught my last class in May of 2014. (When that semester was winding down, I put lesson plans online out of pre-emptive nostalgia.)
Even given all of that, I might have been satisfied to continue on indefinitely as a freelance writer, missing the classroom but contenting myself with the handful of invited talks I give at universities, had the 2016 election turned out differently.
This might seem trite — sometimes sincere things are trite (shrug) — but we all see what is happening to the very notion of being a thinking and feeling person in the ugly wake of the Trump presidency. Tensions were high enough on campuses under the two terms of a bona fide intellectual, for crying out loud. I feel like a wizened old crone when I say this, but: You guys remember back when racial terrorism on campus was a newsworthy anomaly, and faculty members (and students) didn’t get put on a "Watchlist" and doxxed on the regular? Good times.
The American university was in a precarious enough position before the 2016 election, essentially like one of those mealworms I used to watch develop into a beetle in middle-school biology class, right in its most nauseating stage as half-bug and half-larva — except, you know, with corporatization. (This column is supposed to be making the case for how much I really want to be working in academe again; this is going great.) What I mean is that the university was embattled enough before the bona fide apocalypse hit it.
This is an all-hands-on-deck moment, people. White supremacist, men’s rights groups are recruiting college-aged guys in astounding numbers (any number more than "zero" is astounding). And I’m sick of feeling helpless. It’s time to call up the reserves. Everyone who feels like they can make a difference by teaching young people how to think and be better — a.k.a., the point of the humanities, and not coincidentally precisely the reason its practitioners are currently vulnerable for metaphorical and literal extermination — needs to report for duty. Or, at any rate, I do.
So here I am, back in the place I promised I would never again dare to tread. Ice skating in Hell — or at very least, in line to buy my tickets for the rink.
Now, there are reasons to expect things might be different for me on the market this time. I don’t mean with the outcome; the outcome is as arbitrary as it always has been. Sure, I have a slightly higher profile now; my journey both to academia and out of it are a literal open book. Whether this will be advantageous remains to be seen, and honestly it doesn’t really concern me. (If it did, I wouldn’t be here.)
No, the substantive reason this go-round might not end in the usual Mid-January Existential Misery Vortex is simple: I have options now. I have been exceptionally lucky (possibly unfairly so) in my postacademic career. Furthermore, even though I haven’t had a classroom of my own in four years, I’ve never stopped teaching the subjects that move me. At least once a week, for example, I devour the news from Germany and then distill it for an American audience by way of relating current events to enduring currents in the literary tradition. Of course, I wouldn’t stop writing if I got a job — in fact, it would be a condition of anywhere that saw fit to employ me that my public engagement count some for tenure and promotion, as such service should for everyone.
What I mean is this: Whether or not I have any luck on the tenure-track market this year, I won’t have to move next year (or the year after that, or the year after that). I know, more or less, where my next paycheck is coming from, and the outcome of this year’s ever-paltry hiring cycle in the humanities will have no bearing on this.
Still, I admit: I’m a sensitive person, and, as Dr. Yes reminded me, you can’t really go on the market without making yourself vulnerable. All this, then, points to a potentially explosive December (if I don’t make it to the first round anywhere), or January (if I don’t make it to the campus-interview stage), or March (if I don’t get hired anywhere). This goes doubly for me personally, as I’ve decided to bring all of you along for the ride, in the name of Schadenfreude (yours), solidarity, and transparency.
And so, this pop-up column will last as long as my market cycle does. For now, I’ve got to get back to revising my letters. Dossiers are almost due, after all, and somehow I must — in the space of a single page — acknowledge the living dichotomy of my application: That my entire alleged "brand" is that I don’t belong in academia anymore, which is precisely why I need to return.
Rebecca Schuman is a Ph.D. in German and a freelance author and essayist. She is the author of a memoir published this year, Schadenfreude, A Love Story. Her website is Nihilismforoptimists.com. Browse her previous columns here.