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.

One thought on “The Brink

  1. peter

    Impressive Craig. One thing not aforementioned although implicit! is the dogged tenacity with which you have pursued this path. Congratulations we wish you well in your new role ..


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