Surviving the Gauntlet

In days of yore, I used this blog to detail my frustrations with the trials and tribulations of the academic job market. I tracked my frustrations with the application process, from the thorny practice of asking for letter writers to the staggering inaccessibility of some university HR sites. I explored what it meant to frame myself as a hotshot young researcher worth investing in for a tenure-track job in one application, before pivoting hard to pitching myself as a passionate teacher committed to fostering student development and growth in another. I read The Professor Is In blog and recoiled at the fundamental erasure of individuality that it demanded, and dabbled hopelessly in alt-ac alternatives where it seemed my PhD was a millstone around my neck rather than a keystone in the soaring arc of my career. In general, I wrote these posts for me and avoided advertising them too widely. They were a way for me to vent and were carefully hidden from potential employers who might have discovered this site through my SEO.

As a result, this post is somewhat atypical for this blog because it contains both good news about my academic job search and is intended to be public. I wanted to write it as a substitute for the “Pleased to announce” genre of tweet that usually accompanies this kind of good news but which can often be grating to read for contingent faculty who remain outside of full-time academic employment. I myself once muted every variation of “pleased to announce” on Twitter for about six months because although in my heart of hearts I wanted to celebrate the success of brilliant and deserving colleagues, I found it too hard to process their good news while I juggled five classes across two campuses, with double the logins, emails, and LMS problems, for less pay than I earned as a VAP in my previous role.

My news is that after two years as an Adjunct Lecturer at New England College, I found out yesterday that I am officially being promoted to full-time Assistant Professor of History. A few years ago when I accepted the offer to teach at NEC, I did so because those I spoke with about the position (including my indefatigable Associate Dean) promised that adjuncting at NEC could be a path to full-time status. I turned down a more secure, one year position in Maine because I was told there was no real expectation that it would be renewed and chose instead to gamble on the weaker position with the better long term payoff. I cashed out yesterday in part because of the incredible support of my students, who inundated the Provost (without my direct knowledge) to nominate me for Adjunct Faculty of the Year for the 2020-21 semester, an award I found out I had received to my great delight and surprise at Commencement in May.

To tell you the truth, I am still processing what this means and how it will change my life. After submitting nearly 300 applications (and soliciting almost nine hundred letters) for full-time academic jobs since the Fall of 2015, it remains astonishing to me that it was my teaching, rather than the research agenda we are all told we must relentlessly advance or pay the price, that made the difference. I cannot credit the senior leadership at New England College enough for being willing to invest in and promote their adjunct professors. Most of you reading this know how that it is rare indeed for a university administration to value its contingent faculty in this way.

But I am also acutely aware that my path, like the path of almost everyone who finds themselves securing a full-time academic position, was largely a product of luck and timing. When my wife and I decided to move to New Hampshire in the summer of 2019, we did so because I believe my academic career was over after I had failed to land the last outstanding job I had interviewed for. Some of you may recall that I pulled out of what would have been my first ever SHEAR conference that year because I had to confront the reality that I simply could not afford to go, even to a conference within driving distance from my new home, because I was unemployed. Once we were in NH, I sent out a few speculative applications to local colleges for adjunct positions that were advertised. The position I applied to at New England College had only just become vacant very late in the year due to the previous occupant accepting another job. The cascading effect was that I took the role and quickly devoted myself to trying to turn the role into a full-time one, albeit with no real clarity as to how that might happen, especially with the onset of COVID-19.

Right place, right time is my story. By acknowledging this, I want to try to give back in my new role by advocating for other adjuncts on my campus as my Associate Dean advocated for me. It seems to me that the process by which I have secured this full-time role is one we should want to be replicated elsewhere in our industry, which is by any reasonable standard enduring a recruitment crisis. We should want to commit to contingent faculty who (I flatter myself) create engaging and safe and stimulating learning environments for our students, and whose ability to do often flashes in spite of expecting them to do more for less. Academia in general needs to dramatically rethink our commitment to the prestige economy, which persuades us that an outside candidate who might write an award-winning book is a superior option to the brilliant and inexhaustible contingent faculty we already have in situ. It remains a problem that the concept of the “inside candidate” for a position is regarded as A Bad Thing.

All I can feasibly control in the near future is the future of hiring in my own department, which as things stand is a department of two people. I have to pass my annual review at the end of this academic year before I can truly start to think long-term about the future of the History program at NEC, but my promise to myself and my future colleagues is never to hold contingency against an applicant in service to a prestige economy in the job market that we all know is unfit for the dire realities of academic recruitment across the country.

I am not sure how replicable my path from adjunct to Assistant Professor really is for other contingent faculty looking to mirror my path, but I am also prepared to offer advice and support to anyone trying to make the same transition. And remember, I did it without following a single suggestion from The Professor Is In. You can too.

The Brink

One of the things that sustains any candidate on the academic job market is the thought of one day publishing that tweet announcing you have finally, mercifully, secured academic employment for the foreseeable future. This genre of tweets often elicits wholesome congratulations for genuinely pleased colleagues, but also eye rolls from despondent job seekers gearing up for another year on the market and bitter about the fact the person tweeting their good news is not them. I have felt these twin impulses simultaneously, even as people I genuinely love and respect and believe will be an incredible addition to the ranks of the professoriate announce new jobs.

What anyone who has navigated the modern academic job market knows is that cynicism and despondency are never far from the discussion. Even at that apex moment when your friend gets their dream job, you cannot help but second guess why the person celebrating with their many Twitter admirers is not you.

After all, the decision to go on the academic job market in the first place requires a particularly acute self-possession on the part of the candidate. In other words, despite all the dire prognostications and pessimistic forecasts about the likelihood you will ever land permanent academic employment, you nevertheless convince yourself you will be the exception to the rule. That you are more prepared, more capable, and even more ruthless than other candidates out there, and that all you need to do is survive the initial melee and you will get your shot once you make it to the final ten, six, or three candidates.

I have had many conversations with successful academic job applicants – people who landed coveted post-doctoral or tenure-track jobs – and so-far unsuccessful candidates that confirm this general impression. We all believe we will be the exception, because we must. We cannot fathom a future where the crushing demographic weight of the market will obscure all the work we put in, because to do so would defeat us before we begin. We are taking on a monumental task with no guarantee of a payoff, but we tell ourselves that what we put in will be rewarded. Even as we commiserate and grumble at conferences and over dinner with colleagues that we know it is unlikely, there is a reservoir of self-confidence we go back to again and again to persuade ourselves that no matter how this goes, we are going to prevail. We will not be beaten by the system.

Thus, we imagine that tweet. That moment when it will pay off, and we can say, through tears and laughter and virtual hugs with our colleagues, that we did it. We were right. We had what it took all along. The relief is palpable, the vindication tangible.

Today is that day for me, yet I cannot say it is a celebratory one. To reach the point of this post, where I announce to you all that I have accepted a teaching position at New England College in Henniker, NH for the 2019-20 academic year, I traveled to the brink of my reservoir of self-confidence and was forced to confront the muddied reflection I found there.

A brief recap of my year, before I get to my point: I started applying for academic positions in late August, 2018, and submitted over 50 applications between then and June, 2019. I received an interview request in response to a grand total of seven of them, ranging from one of the most prestigious positions in my field – the Omohundro Institute Post-doc, for which I interviewed at the AHA Annual Meeting – to a part-time teaching position at a community college. The OI Post-Doc interview was my only one in the Fall; two more post-docs and a tenure-track job interview followed in the Spring cycle, although the latter fell through for reasons beyond my control. I submitted 20 of the fifty applications between March and June, and received exactly zero interviews from them. I submitted two in early June, and went two-for-two, going so far as to have a campus visit with both. In the end, I had two offers and had to make a very tough decision between good full-time teaching options. I chose New England College for its strong liberal arts tradition and its helpful proximity to my wife’s current workplace in Concord, NH.

Between losing out on that tenure-track job and interviewing at NEC, however, I had to confront something that was a long time coming. The end of my academic career was in front of me. The prospect of having taught my last class, written my last article, went to my last conference seemed inevitable. I had to search my own soul to figure out if I was the kind of person who had the wherewithal to continue writing and publishing from outside academia, purely for a love of scholarship. I concluded that I might have been, three years earlier right before I went on the job market for the first time, when I still held romantic notions about the purpose of academic work and its transformative potential in the world.

The intervening years spent hurling applications into the void, however, had taught me the exploitative and kafkaesque truth about the academy. Between having an article rejected because a peer reviewer accused me of not having done the most basic research in a paper littered with primary source references you will not find in their work, and having to convince Boomer professors who likely got their jobs in the 1980s why I would leave my non-tenure track post-doc for their tenure-track 4-3 position as though I had any choice in the matter, the shine wore off. We convince ourselves that the academic labor we perform has a purpose and contributes to the advancement of human knowledge, and it certainly does that in the abstract. But at the same time, I was writing articles, book proposals, and conference papers to meet the minimum threshold just to be interviewed for a job. The body of work that consumed my life was designed not to get my C.V. thrown into the trash within a minute of it first being read.

The expectations we place on academic job seekers are truly absurd. The idea that one must simultaneously complete more paperwork than is required to immigrate to the United States (I speak from experience) just to apply to a 4-4 at a directional university while also remaining productive in your own scholarly endeavors AND leading the classes you are assigned to teach in your temporary position to ensure your teaching evaluations don’t say anything that would cost you a job later (if they are ever read) is beyond insane. It is for this reason, I believe, that we do a disservice to the many brilliant, hard-working candidates out there who do pour their heart and soul into achieving all this when we simply turn around and make decisions about hiring based on who advised who and who recommended who. The entire academic hiring edifice needs a root-and-branch rethink so that it is not solely reserved for those who put on the best performance of academic productivity at the expense of those who cannot.

In any case, confronted with the reality I may not get an academic job, I began to consider other possibilities. Buying a home in a place I wanted to live. Doing outreach work in the humanities. Volunteering. Raising more guide dogs. It was strangely liberating that the next half decade of my life did not have to be solely dedicated to a tenure file.

And then, because my life is one giant cosmic satire, two opportunities arose almost contemporaneously. I am excited to begin my 3-3 teaching load at New England College precisely because I am not on the tenure-track and can focus my efforts where I believe they will do the most good. I am tasked with teaching introductory American history courses that will help the liberal arts students at my new institution get to grips with the relevance of the Founding era to our modern political world. Given that NEC is a major stop on the campaign trail in Presidential primaries, I am excited to blend our conceptual classroom discussions with practical real-world dialogues about healthcare, immigration, and race. I have found myself, at the end of this process, happy that the most meaningful part of an academic career remains available to me. That I can still influence young minds and help cultivate empathy in a new generation that wants to love themselves and love each other. I have always believed history teaches empathy, and that empathy saves the world. Despite the bitterness and cynicism of my academic job market experience, I find myself oddly hopeful once more in my new role.