MLA 2016

I organized the following panel for MLA 2016 and was pleased at the large turnout. Panelist Tim Cassedy expanded his presentation into a longer article, “Peridoctoral Stress Syndrome,” for Insider Higher Ed.

The Lore and Lure of the Academic Job Market

Presiding: Leonard Cassuto (Fordham University, Lincoln Center)
Panelists: Sandra Baringer (UC Riverside), Lynn Arner (Brock U), Robert Simon (Kennesaw State U), Tim Cassedy (Southern Methodist U), Carrie Johnston (Bucknell U)

This roundtable will consider how discipline-specific “lore” continually lures graduate students, contingent faculty, and full-time faculty into an already overcrowded job market. Reasoning that this lore is largely the result of advice given about the academic job market, roundtable participants will examine a range of sources of this advice to initiate a discussion about the psychodynamics of job candidacy in disciplines confronting changes in academic, institutional, and economic trends.

Acknowledging that the reproduction of the academic job market is made possible by the myth that higher education is the only acceptable route for humanities PhDs, this session aims to generate complex questions that can dismantle the formulaic advice geared toward job candidates in English and foreign languages. Implicit in this advice is the myth that a qualified job candidate need only follow a standardized set of rules to obtain a “good” job. The results of this mentality range from depression among job seekers to a refusal to look to other industries for employment. This roundtable offers an opportunity to interrogate the well-intentioned advice in sources such as The Chronicle of Higher Education and conventional wisdom propagated by job placement committees that is rarely questioned.

Instead of providing advice about getting a job, the panelists will evaluate that advice and how it upholds common practices in graduate programs and academic departments. The intended audience therefore includes graduate students preparing for an academic job search, candidates currently on the market, those who mentor and advise job seekers, and faculty who regularly serve on search committees. Looking closely at the lure of job market lore, we will find that behind it are enduring myths that equate merit with success, largely ignoring the material realities of an academic job search.

Sandra Baringer (University of California, Riverside) will begin with a survey of non-tenure track job postings and a critique of the attitudes and representations of graduate school faculty, human resources personnel, and disciplinary associations about those jobs.  Constructing her presentation around a study of MLA lecturer job postings in the 2014-2016 hiring cycles, Baringer will discuss the challenges job applicants face in finding information about non-tenure-track jobs in writing and foreign languages and how to advocate for themselves, both individually and collectively, in obtaining them. Although the MLA has assembled significant data demonstrating job trends, Baringer argues, job candidates are on their own when assessing prospective non-tenure-track positions, which must include accurate information about salaries, working conditions, terms of employment, and the particulars of union representation from campus to campus.

Focusing on the myths about the egalitarian nature of the job market, Lynn Arner (Brock University) outlines gendered and class-based patterns in the professoriate at American post-secondary institutions and points out various mechanisms that track different groups of PhD recipients into disparate types of post-secondary institutions. Such tracking of PhD recipients contrasts sharply with most hegemonic advice about the MLA job market, including the ubiquitous advice that any newly minted PhD can compete for any job, if he or she publishes a sufficient amount of scholarship in the right venues. Arner then considers the ways such advice reproduces job market trends, favoring those who garner coveted jobs largely because of their privileged associations; and on those who institutional affiliations, complicated by gender or class, have predetermined that they are statistically unlikely to secure the types of jobs for which they trained.

Robert Simon (Kennesaw State University) will discuss the “canned advice” advice that these egalitarian assumptions about the job market generate. Generic advice ultimately impairs job candidates’ ability to read the intricate—and often unspoken—dynamics of a university, search committee, and job posting. A job candidate’s ability to answer questions thoughtfully without seeming over-prepared is vital to that candidate’s success, but mentoring job candidates all too often gives the prospective candidate a quick answer to potential questions about teaching, research and service, which overlooks the important aspect of fostering a thoughtful and creative approach to answering interviewer questions.  Mentoring instead should stimulate an awareness of the intricacies of the interviewing that may not have existed in the past, ultimately giving agency back to the candidate and not the advisor.

It addition to this job market-specific advice, expectations governing student conduct while in graduate school impair a candidate’s ability to fully engage in the job market. Analyzing the psychodynamics of job candidacy, Tim Cassedy (Southern Methodist University) demonstrates that strategies for navigating the humble situation of graduate school abruptly become maladaptive when entering the job market. Cassedy will examine the psychological symptoms of searching for an academic job, such as despondency and anxiety, and then characterize how these symptoms manifest themselves in a candidate’s job documents in the form of excessive deference and extensive reliance on other scholars’ work. Furthermore, these symptoms indicate the emotional entanglement of graduate students and their advisors, and faculty mentors must acknowledge their role in this dynamic as the advisee engages the job market to avoid the countertransference of their own expectations and anxieties onto a job candidate and her work.

Offering the perspective of a newly-minted PhD and current job candidate, Carrie Johnston (Bucknell University) examines academic job seekers’ advice to each other in the form of academic jobs wikis and reader comments in online advice columns. Despite the proliferation of advice books, blogs, and unwritten rules about the job market, graduate students and job seekers create anonymous online networks in which they offer each other advice and real-time feedback on the state of the market. These platforms, Johnston points out, evidence the insufficient nature of official job market advice, and argues that job seekers often have a more realistic understanding of the expectations of search committees than their faculty mentors and other experts in the field. By acknowledging the uneven and often impossible nature of the academic job market, advice shared between candidates has the potential to challenge the homogenous wisdom that supposedly serves the best interest of an increasingly diverse body of job candidates.

The goal of the roundtable is to initiate informed dialogue about the empty promises implicit in job market lore. Participants will avoid offering more of the same advice, raising practical and ethical questions that will elicit audience participation in rethinking what all too often becomes a debilitating process of searching for an academic job.