First of all, I’m exhausted, so I’m going to be a lazy linker. But the latest news about the Gigantic Kerfuffle regarding the Colorado State English Dept. job ad has apparently resulted in a change of language (which I think is infinitely preferable to their original ad).
Lots of people have already written about this, so I’m coming in late with some reflections, in no particular order.
First, on the ad itself (both in original and revised forms):
- I never thought that the original ad was a “lawsuit waiting to happen.” It’s worth noting that I might resist at first blush any claims about “lawsuits waiting to happen” that I hear, mainly because in my neck of the academic woods, the people who like to utter that phrase tend to be Super Paranoid Miserable People without Law Degrees. It’s like this crazy threat that academics (without law degrees) like to throw out there when they’re too lazy to articulate what are actually ethical, political, or moral objections, not legal ones.
- That said, I was totally disgusted by the original ad (which said it wouldn’t consider applications from people who earned their degrees before 2010), mainly because I felt like it came off as a very “let them eat cake” moment. Everybody knows that when the market crashed in 2008 it left a lot of great people without the potential of gaining tenure-track employment. We still haven’t (will we ever?) recovered from that. To assert that the only people out there seeking entry-level tenure-track work have only gotten degree-in-hand within the past two years? What planet do these people live on?!?! That wasn’t even true before the market crashed.
- I was further disgusted by the original ad because if their aim was to limit the number of applications (and I have to think that this was at least in part the case), then they could have done so by narrowing the field of their search, as opposed to saying “pre-1900 American Literature,” which, let’s note, is HUGE and covers like three different fields in the discipline. So not only was the original ad offensive to people off the tenure-track, it was also lazy as hell.
But so now, after the massive public shaming, the language has changed, and it’s less offensive. So far so good, right? But that doesn’t mean much, at the end of the day, because at the end of the day, lots of departments won’t look twice at an application from a person who is more than 3 years from degree. Or, to be less cynical than that, they may look twice at that application, but that application is going to have more items on it that give them a reason to rule a person out. And, frankly, that is true whether one is applying from a tenure-track position or whether one is in a contingent position. I don’t think it’s actually, at least in my experience, about discriminating against people who’ve been working as adjuncts. It’s about experience.
“Experience” is all well and good, but your experiences can make you not “fit” with the hiring department’s imagined ideal of who they will hire for that position. Because the more classes you teach, and the more articles you write, and the more books you publish, the more it’s clear who you actually are. Now, sure, you might be the exact perfect person that every person in the hiring department has been waiting for all his or her life. But probably? That ain’t going to be so.
Why not? Well, because hiring departments, especially big ones, like my department with around 30 full-time people, have lots of different personalities and lots of different ideas about their One True Colleague. I got the offer for my job when I was ABD (though I had degree in hand when I started). I was like a tiny precocious baby, who clearly could teach the classes that they wanted people to teach in my field, but who, primarily, was adorable. Like a baby who can sing her ABCs. But let’s say I’d have applied for this job when I was three years out – with those presentations, publications, and newly developed courses on my cv. Would I have gotten the job? Maybe, but I think not. Because what I did in that three years gave a hint to the sort of colleague I actually am, which is a hell of a lot less accommodating than the eager beaver I was when I had yet to defend my dissertation. When they hired me, they could imagine who I’d become, who they would shape me to become. After a few years? Yeah, it must have become pretty apparent to some people that they’d made a giant mistake about what sort of colleague I would be. Oh, I’m exactly as “energetic” as they’d thought I’d be, and I work hard, and I care about teaching and do a good job with it, and I’m fun to have a conversation with in the hallway. That’s all fine, which is why I was able to earn tenure in spite of the other things that I revealed. They certainly didn’t expect all my opinions. They certainly didn’t expect that I’d keep publishing 1-2 things a year, plus a book before tenure. They didn’t think that I’d be… as vocal and as insistent as I’ve become. When I had yet to earn my degree, I seemed like I’d be “fun” and “engaging.” And, sure, I am. But I’m also a pain in the ass. And, frankly, that is clear from how my cv has developed, both in terms of the courses I teach and in terms of the articles and book that I’ve published. Sure, there might be some department out there that would see that cv and think, “You complete me!” But not most.
I don’t say all of this to be defeatist to those still on the market after a few years, nor do I say it in order to provide some sort of alibi for search committees that discount experience in favor of the shiny new thing or who discount those applying from contingent positions in favor of those applying from “good” jobs or from Fancy Graduate Programs. I say this because this is the profession as I’ve come to know it, at least in English.
Now, that being said, we’ve hired “old” PhDs in my department in recent years, because we felt like they would be a good fit for our students, because we felt like they’d be promising colleagues. That said, they didn’t come in guns blazing about how much “experience” they would bring us, or how they “deserved” the job (although they did). And, though this probably seems counter-intuitive to the advice that most people get, they had weak publication records. See, regardless of the requirements for tenure here, we are a “teaching” school. Show too much interest in research and there are some people who will question your commitment to teaching.
Basically, the bottom line is that the market sucks and it’s not fair. It’s not about merit, or accomplishments, or experience. Does that mean that the hires that we’ve made since I’ve been here have been “bad”? No. But it does mean that a lot of people with great CVs who’ve been out of the PhD for a while will always be in danger of seeming like a “bad fit.”
So while I thought the CSU original ad was disgusting, I think it did reveal some hard truths about who we are and how we do business. Yes, your PhD does have an expiration date. Mainly because when it comes to hiring, most universities (maybe not all, but most) would rather imagine what you might become than know what you are.