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What's SUp

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I haven't exactly kept to my promise to blog my job search this year as openly as I thought I'd be able to. Frankly, the prospect of figuring out with each entry how much I could say and how much I should hold back made me tired just thinking about it. And as a result, I haven't been particularly forthcoming.

But a couple of emails today reminded me that, given that my search this year is over, I can and should probably provide some info. If you're given to reading between the lines, you will have noticed that my "How" piece from a couple of days ago included a link to an Amazon list for a course at Syracuse this fall, implying pretty strongly that I will indeed be at Syracuse this fall. Let me make that implication explicit: without getting into details about who, what, or where of my search, I've decided to stay at Syracuse for the time being. I'm happy to speak privately about the details of that decision, but I'm not of a mind to blog about it, because it involves other people and institutions, obviously.

One thing I thought I might mention, though, is that I was a little surprised this year by the number of folk who were themselves surprised that I was on the market. If I had my way, this is something that every graduate student in the field would be taught. I went up for tenure this year, and while my department has been incredibly supportive, perhaps the single most important fact about tenure, for the candidate at least, is the following:

They can say no.

Having gone through a period of my life where I did not know if I would have a job as soon as six months in the future, I am not anxious to experience that particular abyss again. Tenure is indeed a delightful form of job security, but it is also a referendum on whether or not you will retain your job; it's quite the all-or-nothing proposition. If the institution does indeed say no, you have one year to find another job, your lame duck year, if you will. However, you must spend that year on the market, and more importantly, you must spend it as a junior-cum-senior candidate who was denied tenure by your present institution. Anyone who honestly believes that this fact doesn't color a search committee's impressions of you, please raise your hand. (Now, if your hand is in the air, please smack yourself in the head with it.) Now I know people who have overcome this particular vote of no confidence, and I know places where that vote was less than warranted. Neither of these things changes the fact that you have effectively been fired, and that you will have to explain yourself to everyone who gives you a second glance.

The alternative is going on the market while you are going up for tenure. If you are qualified for tenure, that means that you have spent several years making yourself look as good as possible; furthermore, you have gathered together all the same materials that you would for the job market, your colleagues have written letters on your behalf already, and all of the criteria by which you will be deemed tenurable are the same that other institutions will use to deem you employable.

It takes a great deal of time and energy to search for positions, but much of that same time and energy is expended on things like 3rd year reviews and tenure reviews. So it makes sense to put that work to the dual use of a search during your review. But more importantly perhaps, it makes sense to protect yourself against the possibility that you will not receive tenure.

And maybe even more crucially, it's important to understand that, in the final analysis, you have almost no control or power over your colleagues' review of your record. You are not present when they discuss your case, you don't see your outside letters (at SU, at least), nor do you really have access to the process itself, beyond preparing your materials. From a psychological perspective, testing the job market waters gives you some measure of control over your future, and that's a pretty welcome thing in the face of a tenure review. It makes sense to put yourself in a position to be able to make some of your own decisions about your future, at a time when a bunch of folk that you don't know are also making decisions about it for you.

I suppose that it's fair to ask whether it was worth all the extra hullabaloo, just to end up back in the same place I was when I started, but I think so. I got to spend time with friends, meet a lot of new people, and if nothing else, I gave two job talks and one at MLA without reading from scripts. I was more confident and relaxed about myself professionally than I've ever been. And I couldn't say any of those things if I'd spent the last four months fretting about tenure. Or just fretting about tenure, I should say.

That's all.

Home again, home again

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At least for a while, until CCCC in March. Another month, another secret mission, this time to the heart of the midwest. It's no secret, if you read last week's entry on Moretti, that said mission involved the presentation of ideas. A couple of people referenced my blog post in private, but I ended up not leaning on Moretti's work quite as much as I originally expected, so the question would have sounded a little decontextualized.

Ah, but this was Step #3 in my (toast)master plan to wean myself away from scripting my presentations, and it was perhaps my most successful step to date. I had a clock facing me from the back of the room, an hour for my session, and I started ten minutes late, due to some tech snafulery. I think I raced a little bit, but I ended up at 35 minutes, leaving a good 15 for questions, and it went pretty well from my perspective.

This time round, in part due to my own procrastination, I had to be briefer in the notes I was using. There were several spots where I just wrote down stuff like "Anderson - Long Tail - explain," trusting myself to say what I needed to. And what do you know? I think I did. You may think this a small triumph, but bear in mind that I've been doing this for more than ten years, and I have serious stage fright. To be able to tell myself to just explain something, in front of a group of mostly strangers, is a huge step for me.

The other thing that I noticed was that, rather than slipping off into the reading zone (where I start a paper and then don't notice anything until after I'm done), I was able to respond in some ways to facial expressions, so that if I needed an extra sentence to make something clear, I could do that. If no one seemed perplexed, I could move on. I'm definitely not perfect at it, but hey, actually remaining conscious and responsive during the presentation was a step in the right direction, methinks.

I had the chance to chat about the question of reading vs. speaking with someone there who's in a field where speaking is the norm. I tried out a little theory about why I at least have had to work hard at moving away from reading. I can't really speak for others in my discipline nor for other disciplines, but I began my graduate study at a time when there was a lot of emphasis on decentering teacherly authority in the writing classroom. The focus, we were told, should be less on direct instruction and lecture, and more on peer work and discussion. As someone who was pretty introverted already, this was an emphasis I could easily embrace. I don't really prefer to be the center of attention anyway, and so I was more than happy to decenter me. Of course, it's not that simple when there's grading involved, but that form of authority governed individual interactions rather than the classroom.

The point is that this kind of training, while it lent itself to my teaching style just fine, also left me rather underprepared to venture forth to conferences and speak confidently in a room full of colleagues without a script. I'd never argue that we should return to those halcyon days of yellowed lecture notes, but at the same time, I'm convinced that the shift away from "sage on the stage" styles has left us less able to perform well when we are on stages. I really admire those of my colleagues for whom this is not a problem, but I am most definitely not one of them.

Here's what I've done:

  • I track a few sites (Presentation Zen is my fave) that often contain advice for presentations, whether it's tips for engaging audiences, how not to prepare a Powerpoint/Keynote deck, or what have you.
  • I bought the Keyspan remote on PZ's recommendation, and so took some advantage of my gadget fetish to convince myself to try this.
  • I've been composing more in Keynote (and as I've given multiple talks, recycling slides from multiple sources has become easier), which helps split attention between me and screen (which helps me psychologically). Having roughly a slide for every 1-2 minutes also helps me pace myself.
  • I've tried to visualize speaking situations as I compose, which seems to help as well.
  • And maybe most importantly, I've tried to build up what I think of as a repertoire of 5-10 minute, modular talks, out of which I then compose longer presentations. Not only does that make signposting a breeze, but it keeps me from feeling like I'm relying too heavily on a long series of points that are tough to keep in mind as I work towards a conclusion. I start with an overview that explains how it's all going to fit together, and then I work through the pieces.

One compliment I got last week was that, each time a question was raised in this person's mind, the next slide or step in my talk answered it. This made me quite happy, as you might imagine. I don't think of myself as any great speaker, believe me, but I feel like I am improving visibly from one talk to the next. Confidence will do that for you, apparently. And I say all this not in an attempt to shame others in my field to weaning off of the script, but in the hopes that it might be helpful. As much as anyone, I understand the feeling of security that a script brings, not to mention the fact that you can "finish" a script, while I tend to tweak and tweak and tweak right up until the presentation without one. That's my next step, I think, to try and trust myself, keeping the tweaks to a minimum.

We'll see how it goes. In fact, we'll see how it goes come March.

That's all.


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(Note: I've been sitting on this post for about three days, and gotten to the point where it's keeping me from blogging other stuff. So rather than polish it up, I'm just going to post it.)

Now that the MLA job list has been released, it's been a bit of a challenge for me to turn my thoughts to questions of my upcoming job hunt. After all, this is the first time in six years that I've had to think about searching. I've been solicited for the occasional position, but honestly, not having to assemble materials, worry about MLA, or submit myself to the jaded scrutiny of search committees is in my opinion one of the advantages of the tenure-track. And there are real differences between searching for entry-level positions as an assistant professor and considering more senior positions--I'm only looking at advanced assistant or associate gigs this time round.

Part of it is that there are very specific reasons for requesting senior hires. They require more money, and one of the secret places that colleges balance their budgets is by maxing out the salary differential between retiring faculty and their entry-level replacements. Senior hires screw with that dynamic, and are thus much rarer. Still, there are times where it's warranted, and if you scan the available positions for senior folks in my field, you'll see what I mean. With very few exceptions, you'll find jobs that are explicit about the desire for middle management candidates: established scholar-teachers who can step into a program with minimal fuss and take over the administration of writing centers, writing programs, a large staff of teachers, etc.

Without getting too snarky about it, there are many positions where universities have acknowledged the expertise of rhetcompers, but that acknowledgment has yet to enter into the curricular calculations of the hiring department. And we've all heard the stories about how even search committees haven't really thought through what it means to hire, consider, host, or converse with rhetcomp candidates. I could get specific on either count, but I probably don't need to.

I'm still deciding about where I'm going to apply, but I've basically decided that I'm going to be forthright about it. There are good reasons for me to apply widely (e.g., leverage), but I've been on too many committees to feel good about applying for positions that I have no earthly intention of pursuing. For one thing, I'm not that great a liar. For another, there's a great deal of emotional and intellectual labor that goes into a search, and if someone's going to take the time to read my materials, they deserve some minimal amount of respect from me for doing it. If I'm not willing to go there, then it's disingenuous of me to apply.

And no, that doesn't reduce my list of possible applications to zero.

But what I've been thinking about lately is exactly what I would expect/want/need if I were to move. Some of those things are personal, certainly, and some are matters of taste. But I've had a couple of conversations in the past few days, where I've been thinking out loud about what makes a "good program" in rhetcomp. And I mean this specifically from the perspective of a potential senior hire--what makes a program attractive to people at the stage that I'm at?

So for example, if I were advising a PhD applicant looking at programs, placement would be a big issue. What structures are in place to help their students find positions, and how successful are they at it, both in terms of percentages and in terms of position quality? That stuff matters to me as someone who does a lot of that work locally, but it doesn't fall into the category of "make or break" for me as I look at programs. Make sense?

(I should note from the getgo that I'm only really interested in other PhD programs. I went to a liberal arts school for college, and have taught at a really good MA-granting program, but for me, a doctoral program takes advantage of my greatest strengths as an instructor, in my opinion. At some point in my career, that may change, but not right now.)

So here are some of the things I've come up with. I may add a post or two later on as I think through this stuff, but feel free to add things in the comments as well...

1. A critical mass of faculty

How many rhetcomp faculty are enough to maintain a thriving program? I'm tempted to say at least 8-10, and almost as tempted to go back and change that to say double digits. Does that mean that smaller faculties are somehow less than real? Of course not. But in terms of curricular variety and in terms of sharing exam and dissertation load, it's hard for me to imagine not feeling stretched pretty thin without that many colleagues. I may be relying too heavily on my own experience in a freestanding program without an MA, but if a program is admitting 3-5 PhDs in rhetcomp a year, as we do, and graduating them at the same rate, as we try to do, then 8-10 seems modest enough. Feel free to disagree, though.

2. An articulated rhetcomp curriculum

I don't expect that other programs have the degree of control that we do at SU over graduate curriculum (or undergraduate, for that matter). But still. Rhetcomp students have certain curricular needs (methods, e.g.) that literature students do not, and vice versa (e.g., foreign language requirements, although how much of a need is debatable). I think that a good program is necessarily one where the rhetcomp faculty have some say over how their students are treated curricularly, i.e., not as lit students who take a pedagogy course or two. That definitely means different courses, and it may even mean different procedures, honestly.

3. Sponsored Networking

This may happen in the form of external events (e.g., Watson or the Penn State Conference) or internal (in the form of ongoing Speaker Series, annual symposia, etc.), but good programs set aside the resources to bring in people. (Sending the program's faculty and students outward in the form of travel support is also important, but not quite enough.)

4. The Vision Thing

This can be many different things, and perhaps this is a sign of my quasi-administrative status, but more and more, I find that I'm impatient with programs where the vision is just "keep on keepin on." Y'know? I have my own opinions about what a responsible vision is, and I know that it's not the only one, but having some long-term goals to work towards feels more important to me than it used to, and I think good programs think beyond the immediate semester. Not all the time, and it's not to say that their plans can't change, but some sort of guiding vision is a good thing.

5. Doing unto others

I wish that this went without saying, but I think that part of a program's vision has to include how everyone in the department is treated, not just the TT faculty. If nothing else, everyone in an English department has some sort of stake in the teaching of FYC, and how they account for that stake and support or neglect it institutionally is one of the things I think about.

* * * * *

So those are five things I'll think about this fall as I consider where to apply, and as I go deeper into the process. I could say much more about each of them, but considering that this entry has been clogging up my blogging passages for the last few days, I'm going to post it, and add as I feel like it...


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Having had other things on what I'm coming to think of as my summer plate of misery, I haven't had much time to troll the blogspace. Too bad, because I'm coming in on the tail end of a conversation taking place over at NKotH and Reassigned Time, and I wouldn't have even noticed had it not been for a stop over at Debbie's. Bad blog-reader!

Interesting to me, mostly because (as I've mentioned here before), I'll be on the market once more this fall, and I had the opportunity during my Iowa swing in June to talk about it with family and friends. I'm in a different situation, though, because I'll no longer be applying to junior positions, which leaves me much more at the whim of the market than I was when I left my first position to come to Syracuse. Advanced positions that are neither (a) endowed chairs, nor (b) administrative ladder-rungs, are few and far between, and that's what I'll be looking for. I've also got some personal preferences that will narrow my options even further, most likely.

But I was also conscious, as I was poring over comments, of the fact that I was one of those job-changelings--I left a position after 4 years in order to take my current position. To be fair, though, 1 of those years was a temporary, fill-in gig, after which I was hired (after a full search) to stay in the position. I was similarly conscious of how quickly conversations like these can go south, in part because any time you're mixing generations and disciplines, you're going to have a lot of people speaking from a very limited set of experiences and generalizing those to the "job search," which is common across all disciplines only in the most general of senses.

Which is not to insult anyone participating there. And I'm not going to pontificate as though my generalizations are somehow more accurate than anyone else's. What I will say, though, is that our institutions function in such a way as to encourage us--all of us--to test the market as frequently as is emotionally possible, and none of us should apologize for doing so. The starting salary for assistant professors, at every institution I've been at, has risen faster than the actual salaries. That's the phenomenon known as compression, and what it means is that there are economic incentives to be the new kid as often as possible. I've been on search committees where we hired new assistant professors at a higher salary than I myself was making. Not exactly a morale booster, that.

If for no other reason than that, no one should apologize for going on the market. And that's because "going on the market" means only one thing: if everything goes as planned, then all the applicant will have by springtime are options. Deciding to leave an institution, to me, is a different decision altogether, and involves issues like loyalty, commitment, contentment, etc. And if NK and DC had announced their intentions to leave their home institutions, come hell or high water, then some of the response they got might have been more warranted in my eyes. But it's a mistake to assume that people who are going on the market are necessarily leaving. If I were to choose to leave Syracuse, that would be a long, complicated, difficult decision. Choosing to put myself in a position to have to make that decision, by applying for other positions? That's just smart.

The other point worth raising is that the job search also requires a great of emotional labor, energy, time, and cash. There are people I know who would rather stay in an average situation than go through all the trouble of the job search, and that should say something. Hours and hours of preparing materials, investing attention and hope, the price of attending an annual convention and/or fronting the costs for campus visits, new clothes, submitting one's self to the evaluative gaze of strangers--the job search is often a demoralizing process, without any real guarantee of success. No one deserves anything other than support when engaging in that process.

Yeah, that's all.



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