Saturday, September 29, 2007

Finding myself: meditations on the job market

[Note: edited to take out the Word automatic tags that screwed up how this post appeared in Bloglines.]

I haven’t talked about this on the blog yet, but in the past few weeks I’ve been actually contemplating throwing my hat in the ring for the job at Homestate U (despite Mr. Jerkwad’s presence – since he’s in another discipline, he’d be mostly avoidable, and for all I know he has reformed his jerkwad ways). I gave myself until yesterday to decide, and ultimately decided not to. Since I’ve come to that decision, I feel like I can blog about it now. Had I decided to apply, I wouldn’t have blogged about it until the process was all over, given how thin my veil of pseudonymity is.

The reasons why I thought I might apply for this job were manifold. It’s an R1 and a flagship U, and though it’s not on the top of the heap of such institutions, it would still mean a step up in prestige compared to my current job. It would also mean a bigger department and Ph.D. students, both of which have their appeal to me. And though it’s not a department with multiple medievalists – and there’s no center or institute for medieval and/or early modern studies – there are a number of early modernists in the department whose general interests overlap with mine more so than in my current department. It would also mean more money in an area where the cost of living (at least judging from the real estate – yes, I checked) isn’t any higher than here, and where Bullock and I could get a place with some acreage not too far from work, or else a house like our current one closer in. And its location in terms of lifestyle would be a step up from Rust Belt, too. It’s a very cool college town and it’s a reasonable short drive from there to my home metropolis, which has boomed in the last twenty years and become much more interesting culturally since I fled its sleepiness in the late ‘80s for the excitement of big cities. And HU’s town is really close to the western and southern suburbs of the city, where Fast Fizzy (and family) and Dad live (though farther from where Nephew and Eldest Niece live in the center of the city). And Bullock has relatives in the greater metropolitan area, too. This means I’d be more available to help out with Dad and Dad-related things (downside: dealing with Dad more!), and we’d both be closer to parts of our families. And I still know people in the area in addition to my family, including my best friend from high school.

Now, none of this would mean jack if it weren’t for the fact that the arts and sciences college of HU also has going for it an open and fair policy regarding the hiring of domestic partners in faculty positions, all posted clearly on their website. And their tenure, promotion, and hiring policies are also accessible. All of this told me that it was possible that they could hire Bullock and with tenure. Not hiring Bullock or hiring him without tenure would be a deal-breaker, because I do not want to go anywhere without him and he doesn’t want to slide back down the tenure ladder. We’re among the lucky ones: we have jobs in the same institution and never had to go through the long-distance thing like so many of you have done or are doing, and I don’t want to start doing that. (This is because we luckily met here at Rust Belt U. Of course I paid my personal relationship dues in other ways: I was unattached for 9 long years in graduate school!) But the possibility that they could hire Bullock means that I could ethically apply for the job, since it opens up the possibility that I could actually take it. Or, if were to get an offer than didn’t meet my needs – didn’t give me enough time to meet their tenure requirements or didn’t come with a tenured position for Bullock – I could have used such an offer to negotiate both with them and with Rust Belt, since I’m applying from a place of relative security and confidence. (No, I don’t have tenure yet, but I have confidence. Knock wood.) I would never, EVER apply for a job that I had no intention of taking, just to negotiate with Rust Belt, because I wouldn’t want to dick around with the prospective department. But the Homestate U job is one I could take if the conditions were right.

And I have people I can draw on for letters of recommendation without having to go back to my dissertation committee, other than my director. Had I decided to apply, I would have discussed it with the awesome chair and with Will, the senior faculty member who has been a great unofficial mentor and cheerleader for me from the hiring process through the tenure process and in between. (He has magically been on or the head of the hiring commmittee, the Department Personnel Committee at key times including this year, and also the university research committee that awards internal grants.) He’s also been a friend and he and his wife have literally fed me, housed me, and entertained me on many occasions since I moved here. I’m confident that they’d understand that the particular job offered a rare combination of professional and personal benefits that made me think I needed to apply for it, and that they would’ve written glowing letters of recommendation for me. And since both have seen me teach and give public talks, and Will knows my research and has the expertise to judge its value, those letters would have been weighty and valuable ones. And there are other people elsewhere I could have hit up, too.

Meanwhile, there are things going on at the university level here that give me pause, that make me feel like what we do in the humanities, or even in the arts and sciences in general, is not valued. I’m not sure that such an atmosphere would be different in kind at another state-supported institution, but it might be different in degree, and that would be an improvement. So would merit raises, which Homestate U gives. I work hard and I have accomplishments to show for it, only to get the same measly percentage raises everyone else gets, which ends up rewarding those with mere longevity and a stubborn refusal to retire, because their base salaries are higher simply because they’ve been around longer. And Bullock figured out that our tiny promotion bump amounts to about 25 cents per hour. Oy. That said, my problems with my current institution weren’t the primary reason I was thinking about this other job, which is a good thing: better to move for positive reasons than negative ones.

So, with all that said, doesn’t it seem like applying for this job is a good idea? Yeah, I thought so, too. Until I thought some more. And talked some more with Bullock and others. For one thing, all the reasons I gave for applying were largely about the lifestyle and conditions of work that Homestate U represents, rather than the job itself. When I saw the job, I didn’t say, “Ooh! I want that job!” I said, “Ooh! I want to live in Homestate’s town and yeah, also, that would be a good job to have.” That’s a little back-asswards. And Bullock said he could tell I was trying to talk myself into applying, which also isn’t a good sign.

Then I started to do a comparison of my job here, on a day-to-day level, with what I’d likely be doing there. Here I have a 3/2 load, but with the course release for being the grad director, that takes it down to 2/2. There, I’d have a 2/2 load and dissertating students to advise. Six of one, half dozen of the other. Here I have a lot of first-generation college students who are eager and don’t always realize how smart they are and where that could take them, and who are really struggling and working hard to make something of themselves and their lives. Yeah, they sometimes frustrate me with their fear of leaving Rust Belt, but every now and then I get to convince one to do study abroad or apply to graduate schools around the nation and get to see their worlds open up in fantastic ways. There, I’d still have some of those kids, especially from the small towns and from the working class county that’s part of greater hometown city, but I’d also have the kids from the county I grew up in, which I often refer to as a “land-locked Orange County.” Let’s just put it this way: I’m not sure I want to teach swarms of kids who drive better cars than I do. Here, I teach almost all medieval classes plus Shakespeare and intro literature and research classes thrown in, and since I’m the only medievalist, I get to run the show, teaching what I want. Maybe I’m not the *best* person to teach Old English, but I do like it and I throw myself into it. There, I’d have to share. And I wouldn’t get to teach Shakespeare again which would be too bad, because Shakespeare is *fun*! Here, I have the institutional support, resources, and time to do my research, even if it requires a month in England, for example, but I don’t have the same pressures that an R1 would, and so now that I’ve written my first book, under some pressure, I can let the next project take the time it needs to develop, and not push it out there too soon just for the sake of a second book. Here I have quick access to all the library books and research resources I need through a statewide lending system or through a quick trip to a nearby R1 with its fabulous library, open stacks, and rare books library that doesn’t care that I’m not one of their faculty. At HU I don’t know what I’ve have. Maybe just HU’s library, but even if they had a statewide system, theirs would be the best library, and without a center or institute for medieval and renaissance studies, they might not have what I’m used to.

And what’s more, I’ve got a community of medievalists here. I may be the only one in my department, but through connections I had from graduate school and the medievalist community there, I’ve become active in reading and working groups at the nearest R1, which is an easy drive away from here and includes multiple medievalists on the English faculty, as well as a scary-smart bunch of graduate student medievalists who have asked super smart questions about my works in progress. And these groups draw in the medievalist from the other regional universities and colleges that dot this part of the country, so the group is pretty big and friendly, and I never feel like a charity case given the presence of the other “outsiders.” And no one’s ever snobby about rank. Plus there’s another big, vibrant community of medievalists at the next nearest R1 a further drive away. It’s too far for me to be involved in the more informal groups, but I sometimes make it to their public talks. As for the closer one, I just spent a day there yesterday for an annual mini-conference on medieval subjects, for which the papers, presented by prominent medievalists from around the country, are pre-circulated to all attendees. It’s a fantastic event because it’s like being in the good part of graduate school again – the fantastic seminars where you learned so much from each other and from the hard but worthwhile work you did preparing for it – and then everyone goes to one of the organizer’s houses for dinner afterwards and just socializes. It’s awesome.

I really wouldn’t have that at Homestate U. Since there’s no med-ren center (as there are at both of the above mentioned R1s), there’s no critical mass of medievalists. There’s one medievalist at the other land grant university about an hour or so away, and two at the metropolitan university in the nearby metropolis, and I think that’s about it for medievalists in English. And I think I’d just feel frustrated trying to mentor English Ph.D. students interested in medieval topics without other medievalists to turn to as well. I’m fine for teaching undergrads and MA students most medieval lit topics, but not for Ph.D. students, and I’d be the only late medievalist there.

Plus, Rust Belt just hired a new person in the theater department who actually gets and likes medieval drama, and he and I are going to propose a team-taught honors course on medieval drama for Spring 2010, tied to a student production we’re proposing for the 2010 performance of the Chester cycle in Toronto. How fabulous would that be? How can I leave something like that behind? While this is all still in the proposal stage, just the thought that I’ve got a kindred spirit in the theater department who doesn’t think medieval drama is “primitive” “folk” drama is *awesome*.

So professionally, as good as Homestate U looks, I think I’ve got it pretty good here at Rust Belt. And there’s the fact that I’d potentially be trading tenure (knock wood!) for being back on the tenure-track in a department where I don’t really know their expectations and wouldn’t fully grasp them no matter how many questions I asked in interviews and visits. As for the personal, while Rust Belt has its frustrations and its sleepiness, Bullock and I do make some use of the fact that we’re near other places with more potential for excitement (not to mention better dining and shopping). And Rust Belt has its own good qualities, including a fabulous and well-endowed museum, great parks, a symphony, and an opera. We’ve put a lot of energy into trying to build a social network here and to enjoy what the area has to offer and we’re succeeding to some extent. And Bullock’s put a lot of sweat into our house, which isn’t going to pay off in the sluggish housing market here if we were to sell. Just this morning we were talking about bamboo flooring for the master bedroom (sold at our fabulous new neighborhood Costco!).

The thing is, I’m happy here. I think a lot of what was driving me to think about the market at all, and the Homestate U job in particular, was the culture of striving that I’ve been a member of at least since I took the entrance test for my private girls’ high school. Onwards and upwards. Bigger and better. Achieve! Achieve! Achieve! And though I never heard anyone at my graduate school or among my direct mentors express disappointment when their students got jobs at anything other than an R1 or a few select SLACs, I know from what people told me that it happened. (It was a big ass department. Sometimes you had to rely on reports from the various segments of it.) And so I’m sure I internalized some of that. And everywhere I’d ever been associated with in higher education prior to Rust Belt was a prestiguous R1, so it’s not surprising I picked up a lot of that ambition for prestige.

But what finally settled that slightly shrill voice in my head that was trying to convince me I was on the verge of “settling” was something Bullock told me today. He talked to his good friend from grad school who coincidentally went to the same fancy-pants undergraduate college I did (same year even, but weirdly, we didn’t know each other) and is a big mucky muck in her subfield (prestigious awards for her first book, already tenured, just got a big fat raise because another school offered her a job which ultimately she decided to turn down, etc., etc. – but unlike Mr. Jerkwad, she never called me a slut in college, so I still like her), and told her about my contemplating applying for this other job. And she said something along the lines of, “What does she need to move for, when she’s already making a national reputation for herself where she is?” And that calmed the over-achieving Lisa Simpson in me. While I wouldn’t say exactly that I have a national reputation, people I’ve never met before do tell me they’ve read my work and compliment me on it. Academia has changed. Once upon a time you had to be at an R1 to be “someone,” to contribute to the wider field. You needed their libraries and their resources and their connections. But now you can be “someone” just about anywhere. Smart research and smart teaching gets done all over the place. What matters is what place – both institution and location – is right for you. And what’s right for me now is my life, all of it, here in Rust Belt.

16 comments:

Flavia said...

This is so interesting to read, and I'm glad that you're at peace with your decision--it sounds like you've made the right one for so many reasons.

I'm not as far along professionally as you are, but I also had a few days of thinking very seriously about going on the market this year and applying to similar institutions: ones that made sense, that were a step up but only a reasonable step up (lesser R1s with generally mediocre PhD programs) and in appealing regions, etc. And like you, I finally decided that--in addition to its really being too early for me in a lot of ways--I was trying to talk myself into it more than I was actually excited about the institutions themselves.

It's hard not to feel that pressure to run after an opportunity just because it's there and because it seems to conform to the values we were taught in grad school. But it's such a good sign of job- and life-satisfaction not to!

Bearded Guy at Lincoln's Home State Flagship University Surrounded by Corn said...

Good for you, Dr. V.

I also will not be going on the job market this year, even though it is tenure year. I've decided to roll the dice. If they come up snake-eyes, well, then I'll go out on the market next year.

BTW, Touchdown Jesus University Press has the complete manuscript now. I've been told that it's going into production. Disaster averted!

P. S. Yes, I've used a very transparent pseudonym for this comment. I just don't want any searches on my name to bring it up. :)

Dr. Virago said...

Bearded Guy -- OK, you crack me up. I love your pseudonyms, especially "Touchdown Jesus University," which I am going to have to find some occasion to use someday. But more important: yay! I'm glad to hear that TJUP now has the book and it's officially "in press"! Woo-hoo!

Flavia - While writing, I was actually thinking of the similar post you wrote on this topic. When I was at your stage there was a job I briefly thought about, but like you, I decided that it was too early and that I needed to stay put for a little while longer. That was a much easier decision to come to that the one I made this year, which involved a lot of concentrated thinking, a lot of weighing of pros and cons. And when one's on the verge of tenure, there's the added pressure/fear of this being a "last chance" (which it really isn't, but it *is* harder to move later). But yeah, in the end I think I made the right decision for *me*, which wouldn't necessarily be the right decision for someone else.

What Now? said...

Such an interesting post, and I'm so glad to hear that you have such a clear sense that you've got choices, options. I appreciate the insight into your thought process about the choice you made. And sounds like you have chosen well; I'm glad that life is looking good these days!

I've also been thinking just this week about the "onwards and upwards," "achieve! achieve! achieve!" culture of Grad School and the extent to which I internalized that as my definition of success.

Virgo Sis said...

Wow, one of your posts to which I can actually relate. Coming from the same family, the pressure to achieve (from two non college graduate public U partiers no less!) is something that still drives me and I am trying to escape it. As I try to figure out a change in career at such an advanced stage/age I actually use you as a touchstone. I told someone the other day that you are so lucky to have found something you love so much. So the thought process around staying where you can have an impact, prospects that excite you - love the Chester/Toronto idea - and a great life is understandable.

As to definitions of success depending on your surroundings, I think I might be able to use a business analogy here. The age of communication and economic disintermediation has meant that we no longer need behemoth corporations to drive us forward. In fact it is the small and nimble that have made the most strides in the last 20 years and now. When they get too big (Microsoft?) they get top heavy, bureaucratic and lazy. And personal success can be achieved anywhere.

Great post, and as much as I would love for you to be nearer Dad et al, do you see me moving back??

Love,
Virgo Sis

Dr. Virago said...

WN -- I just saw your recent thoughts on the "achieve! achieve! achieve!" urge (having been a little behind on your blog, but all caught up now) and thought, "Wow, we're on the same wavelength this week." And I've been thinking of you in general, because I know you've going through this kind of (re)evaluation for some time now.

V Sis -- Thanks. I was worried you'd be disappointed. And now I've learned a new word: disintermediation. Does that mean "getting rid of the middle man" (given the direct-to-the-consumer environment of e-business)?

Virgo Sis said...

Actually, I would have felt guilty had you made that change and I was the only one living away.

And yes, the definition is correct. It started with access to UPS and Fedex and the reduced need for distributors in the middle. Moved on to direct to consumer models.

meli said...

Nine years of graduate school? Gosh you have it tough over there. Though if you count my honours year in Australia and my masters (one year each), I suppose I'm now going into my fifth year. But I'm hoping it will be my last. I'm glad looking further afield makes you realize you're happy where you are.

Dr. Virago said...

Meli - Well, one year was actually post-doc. But yeah, it takes us medievalists a long time.

Feirefiz said...

Hi,
I found your post really thoughtful and thought-provoking. I am going to send out a few applications since it's tenure year and I'm pretty paranoid--department vote's coming up soon. We're not unionized so I have no idea what my external letters say! (By the way, congratulations on the positive vote and the kick-ass letters you got!) I'm keeping my fingers crossed. But I really get what you're saying. It makes sense to appreciate what one's got and not apply aimlessly. Plus when moving wastes time and energy, not to mention money!

Fast Fizzy said...

HU's city was just ranked as one of the best retirement places in the country for Boomers.

Dr. Virago said...

Fizzy - Well there's another reason to avoid it: Boomers. I *hate* the old farts! (I kid! I kid my big boomer brother!)

Feirefiz - If they don't tenure you, there's something crazy-making in the water there!!!!

Feirefiz said...

An update: we both got unanimous positive tenure votes.

Dr. Virago said...

Feirefiz - Woo hoo! Congratulations!!! I'll buy you guys each a drink next time I see you.

Feirefiz said...

Thank you, and we'll each buy you a celebratory drink, Associate Professor V!

Steve Muhlberger said...

I could gladly live in a different, warmer location, but I could hardly be happier professionally. And this at a place I never heard of before I applied for the job.

I know for a fact that the Internet has made my contentment possible. That and my wonderful colleagues, and the fact that you can make a difference at a small place like mine.