Market Madness


My unconventional journey along the tenure track has inevitably led me back to the arduous task of juggling a job search in addition to research and teaching. I admit, I have been an avid reader of advice columns and blogs about the academic market in recent years.  I have had my share of horror stories and interviews from hell as well as experiences with the increasingly popular Skype interview.  Needless to say, the job search has definitely changed since I first got my feet wet as a doctoral candidate with an “in-progress” dissertation.  I feel impelled to share some thoughts—not to be mistaken for advice—on my particular experiences.  Consider them things I’ve learned along the way.

My graduate mentoring about the job market focus solely on scoring the coveted Modern Language Association interview. Well, if you wanted a tenure-track job with benefits and your own office that is.  That certainly is not the case nowadays. There are actually more jobs being advertised post-MLA than ever before.  In fact, some of the jobs in American and African American literature at Research I institutes were advertised in late December and through January with little thought to adhering to the MLA job search schedule. That doesn’t include the number of tenure track jobs announced at smaller, 4-year institutions or liberal arts colleges.  Indeed, it can no longer be said that the job search has no life after MLA.

Apparently, the new hot thing is the academic job wikis.  For all the web heads, this is THE space for up to the minute news/gossip on any particular job search for the current academic year. I only pursued the searches in the Humanities disciplines, most of which have their own dedicated following. It was great to know what moves the search committee was making—interview requests, requests for additional information, when job talks were scheduled.  The wikis really helped to level the playing field and have a one-up on the elusive search committees. I did more information seeking on the wikis than information sharing, but it was still a great tool to have. It just seemed a bit much to register an account and participate when I needed any and all extra energy to be focused elsewhere.  Shame on me. Maybe.

“Fit” applies to both the hiring department and the job-seeking candidate.  With the “shortage” of jobs—or maybe the over abundance of PhDs in the Humanities, it would seem foolish for any candidate to turn down a job offer, right? I’m not so convinced about this one.  We job-seekers can probably fill a bathtub with emails and letters of kind rejection about how we were not the right “fit” or how some other candidate most closely “fit” the needs of the department.  I can dig it. But what I have discovered is that sometimes, the candidate may just need to return that sentiment to the hiring institution.  Depending on your career path, how desperately you need job placement, or how far along you are on the tenure track I would tell anyone to consider how great a fit any department is for their needs as much as the department is considering you. 

I mean, jobs are not a dime a dozen these days but I do think job seekers still have some room to be choosy. That is, weigh all your options and if, in fact, you have several options be sure to completely evaluate all of them.  And in the words of a good colleague of mine, while one offer might  not be the best fit for your long term goals it still may be a “great place to leave”—a stepping stone for achieving the career goals you have set out for yourself.  But if it is absolutely just not a place you can stomach…then, it maybe kinder to leave the job for someone who actually wants it and pursue those other options. Think of it as job search karma.

Lastly, I suppose I will direct my thoughts on another “new” turn in the job search for me.  In my early days (I have to chuckle at that), it was standard to receive a phone call requesting an interview with a particular department.  Out of about 8 interview requests, all but two of them arrived via email.  I actually prefer the email request for time management reasons and to have a written record of the language, but I did find the phone conversations welcoming and more personal.  As a self-declared introvert and shy-guy, I am likely more uncomfortable on the phone than others but I was still a bit surprised at how hands-off the whole process has become.

It is mid-March and I am still actively engaged in the job search with promising options to consider.  I am hopeful that the academic gods will have mercy on my time and teaching and bring this sucker to a swift close.  It has been an eye-opening experience just in the way that the process has changed in a few short years.  I’m actually glad that I decided to get my feet wet again as I feel I am in a much better position to mentor my students on the realities they will inevitably face.  Times, they are a-changing.

A Conscious Choice


My recent junket on the job market has brought forth many reflections on why I chose to pursue a career in academia in the first place.  I think back to the moments in my education when I made conscious choices about what I would and would not do with my graduate training and career.  I distinctly recall the eureka moment when I discovered that I could specialize my research and teaching on the African American literary tradition.  I was just an undergrad, but the realization that I wouldn’t have to spend my graduate years studying dead white men with penchants for ravens or molesting young boys or their female counterparts was life altering. 

I knew I would have to learn the American literature canon to some extent, but I called  myself circumventing that reality by pursuing my Master of Arts in African American Studies rather than English. In my Ph.D program, I managed to take only two courses in American literature—one a directed reading course in which I selected the readings and the other a seminar on the history of Jim Crow and Black Face Minstrelsy.  That seminar focused a great deal on issues of race, so it wasn’t as painful.  The rest of my course work focused entirely on the literature of the African diaspora, save the required course on the History of the English language and a Brit Lit sequence. My comprehensive exams where thoughtfully focused on my primary area, African American Literature and my secondary field, Folklore Studies.  I was pleased with myself at having escaped graduate school without being weighed down with training and courses in a tradition I had relatively little interest in teaching. 

My graduate path was indicative of the course I wanted to pursue on the job market. I was and remain dedicated to the choice not to specialize in the American literary canon. I sought no training in the field and feel no shame or guilt in my lack of expertise.  Sure, I can teach an American literature survey with the best of them—the works have been crammed down my throat for the majority of my formative education. But I can’t help to think about all the scholars, educators, professors, and so on who can declare expertise in British or American literature without ever having studied Hurston, Wright, Ellison, least of all Gloria Naylor, Toni Cade Bambara, Arthur Flowers, or Henry Dumas. They all seem to function just fine in the academy without that knowledge.  So, too can I. Ya feel me?

No one castigates them for any lack or whole in their training.  My conscious choice not to dabble in American literature or to list it as an area of specialty on my CV is both purposeful and political. I don’t want anyone to wrongly assume that African American literature is a sub-field or that it comes secondary to the normative, default position of white, American literature. I want any and all interested parties to recognize that African American literature and culture is the only literary tradition in which I carry expertise.  I want them to be absolutely clear about what it is that I have to offer and for what purpose.

I strategically designed my graduate program around the history, culture, literature and folklore of people of African descent. It was my prerogative to do so and I have been and continue to be extremely happy with that choice. I make no apologies for it as it grants me the privilege of doing work that is at once personally and professionally satisfying.  Besides, isn’t there an over abundance of professors who focus their teaching and scholarship on the American tradition—a tradition that for way too long excluded any writers of non-white origin?  It just does not appeal to me and I think life—especially the academic life—is much too arduous to spin one’s wheel studying in an area simply because it is the default model.