Approaching the job market: some considerations

Note: I was asked to co-present at a job-seekers colloquium tomorrow within my PhD program at Syracuse, so I gathered some thoughts on the market which you can find below. Looking forward to hearing my colleagues’ thoughts on this as well since everyone experiences this process differently.

I turned 40 right before I accepted my job at Rowan last January — my only offer after a long, difficult search. I’ve worked in high schools, administered a writing center, designed community literacy programming, and despite my scholarly focus on amateurs and DIY publishing, I’ve taught professional writing more than any other college course. Moreover, my wife and I have owned a house in Syracuse since 2007, had 3 kids here, and enjoy a vast network of family and friends all over Upstate. I mention all of this because these things — for better and worse — factored into the emotional and logistical way I experienced the market.

I think factors like these — work/experience, friends and family, geographic preferences, career ambitions and allegiances — lead to significant differences in how we approach the process. There is no one way to summarize how anyone could process it. However, one central, practical manifestation — and one that you might begin thinking about right now if you are about to enter the market — comes through the question of how widely you apply. I opted to go wide (about 65 applications) and although it was a lot of work, I’m mostly glad that I did. I applied for English ed jobs, digital writing jobs, civic/professional writing jobs, writing center jobs, and jobs that were mostly tenure track, but not always.

Although I split childcare duties with my wife this year, I was unemployed and so you should take that into account as you read on. But one of the ways I looked at this decision (thanks in part to a mentor’s advice), is that there’s a strange emotional rhythm to the successes and failures of the market. For me, the game went a little like this: as long as I had other lines cast into the sea, a rejection was never as heavy as it would have felt had I limited my search to, say, 20 jobs. And even if I did, I was just too damn busy to linger on those failures. Aside from these psycho elements, ~65 applications gained me a lot of experience interviewing for different jobs, in different formats, and with committees/institutions that had very different dynamics. And it was a little fun.

On the other hand, had I been a bit more selective, I might have been able to write more institutionally-specific letters and prepared stronger materials. I often felt like my teaching letter was really a thinly-veiled research letter, for example, and it didn’t get me many interviews with teaching-oriented positions. The apply-widely approach also led to a very chaotic November/December where I was preparing for multiple campus visits, interviewing with schools on phone/Skype, and still applying for jobs all at the same time. This was very hard on my family. And in the end, I got a job I would have applied for no matter what criteria I used (in fact, a majority of my campus visit invitations were for positions I would have applied to had I been more selective). And Rowan was my first campus visit. 

But I guess what I’m really saying is this: Do you want to run a writing program? Can you handle living in an area where home ownership is virtually impossible for the professoriate? Do you have actual passion for teaching technical writing day in, day out? What are your loved ones willing to sacrifice for your career? Have you talked about it? How do you feel about it? And how conscious are you about your answers to these questions heading into the market? When I sought advice last year, time and time again folks encouraged me to consider both my professional and personal goals, even in the midst of a process where you seem to have very little control.

If you opt for an apply-widely approach (or maybe even if you don’t), the rumors are true: your first academic job search is a full-time job. It’s not that I did not believe this maxim when my mentors shared it with me over and over again, but it’s a different thing when you actually table your dissertation for 3-4 months and live with that decision. As a result, I thought it might help to spell out how this actually worked for me month-to-month and embed some advice within that arc.

Summer before: Based on the wonderful CCR job-seeker meetings organized by Eileen, I used some of my summer to redesign my professional website and draft app documents: 3 different cover letters (teaching/research/WPA), CV drafts, various philosophies, portfolios, etc. But really, I tried to make the most of my summer by getting as far ahead on my dissertation as possible. Ideally you want to have 80% of your diss (~4 chapters) drafted before Sept 1. I only managed 3 of 5 chapters and now it’s April and I’m scrambling to finish before I leave town in August. It’s not fun. Plus, the more you write, the better you understand your project and that’ll be essential when you give your job talk or discuss your work in interviews. (Although I got the job at Rowan, my job talks got better with practice, too.)

September & October: Jobs come in batches starting as early as August, but because of how I approached them, they seemed to constantly flow from postings on the Rhet/Comp Jobs Wiki, Rhetmap, and the WPA list (I rarely looked at the MLA JIL, to be honest). I used a Google spreadsheet to keep track of the ones I wanted to apply for (noting deadlines, links to job descriptions, teaching loads, specializations, and any other details) and color coded them as the market progressed. As these positions were posted I also found myself writing additional required statements on diversity and ESL, and formatting specific teaching portfolios based on the parameters of the application. Speaking of which, the application interfaces are far from uniform and here you find yourself in the belly of the managed university. Interfolio applications were relatively painless but not common enough, and in the more chaotic moments of the search this actually factored into whether or not I applied. Also: from my experience, hardly any schools held initial interviews at MLA this January. As a result, the market schedule shifted and had earlier deadlines. My phone/Skype interviews started in mid-October, for example — well ahead of the MLA-centered schedule.

Late November & Early December: Because I applied widely, this was the time of the process when my life got pretty crazy. At one point, I had multiple campus visits in a 10-day period and a few interviews with schools in between, so all at once I was trying to research schools, write job talks, plan teaching demos, shop for cheap-but-fancy clothes, and continue to apply for jobs that had later deadlines. Nothing I did felt quite adequate and I had a least one emotional breakdown. Still, I’m not sure this was avoidable— just a symptom of an apply-widely approach.

Winter Break: I had a few more interviews in the middle of December and then things suddenly went quiet. This was the hardest part. I wanted to know how those visits went and I wanted to have more scheduled in case they did not go as well as I hoped. I did not have a holiday filled with cheer and I couldn’t help but think that the more time passed, the worse the news would be. At many of the visits I went on in Nov/Dec search chairs told me that they wanted to make a decision before the break. And yet it was important to remember that the timeline for each institution was different. Some were waiting on deans to authorize an offer, and some places brought 2, 3, or even 4 candidates to campus — all people who might have gotten an offer before me. I thought committees would keep me posted throughout this process but it turned out that I only heard from them once someone else accepted and the search was over. That said, in multiple cases I was encouraged by committees to get in touch if I got another offer. That’s something to keep in mind if you find yourself in the fortunate (rare?) position of getting multiple offers at once.

In hindsight, I can say that it would have been emotionally helpful to talk with people other than my wife and my dissertation advisor about what this whole process felt like. Perhaps it would have been good, like in support groups, to have a “sponsor” to talk with — someone who went through this before and would be willing to listen to my anxieties about real estate costs, the material realities of the job, and my innermost insecurities, such as why in the hell did I choose to do a PhD in the first place?

There’s much more to talk about, of course, but I wanted to end this post with just a few practical resources I returned to time and time again:

Rhet/comp academic jobs wiki. Most of the jobs I found were initially posted on this site. I used an RSS-reader Chrome app and subscribed to the RECENT ACTIVITY link on that site, which helped me manage it all. You can also use this site to get backchannel updates on jobs that have posted, but this info can be unreliable, quickly render you obsessive, and ultimately be counterproductive to your progress.

Rhetmap. This site, run by Jim Ridolfo at Kentucky, is useful not only because it geo-plots MLA JIL data, but includes a number of extras. When things were not looking good, for example, I reminded myself that this was the worst market statistically speaking in at least the last 5 years. I knew that because of tools like this market comparison visualization created by Chris Lindgren:

The Professor Is In by Karen Kelsky. Not everyone is a fan of this book or Kelsky’s approach, but if you can get past the first few chapters where she reminds you of the terribly depressing club you are trying to enter, then there are some helpful pieces of advice. Plus the book is organized chronologically in terms of how most candidates experience the market, making it a manageable read on top of all your other responsibilities. She’s also often funny, direct, and includes memorable stories.

Google Analytics. If you have a professional webpage and want to see when and where users are reading it from, install Google Analytics. Although I’m sure it didn’t help my mental health (see academic jobs wiki above), this feature predicted some of the interviews I got ahead of the call.

Marxist rhetorical theory and DIY print cultures

Buffalo Small Press Fair
Buffalo Small Press Fair: view from upstairs

A bit exhausted this weekend after travelling to WNY to attend the Buffalo Small Press Book Fair (more on that below) and to catch up with some great friends in the Queen City. At the expense of having deep engagement with the other readings this week, I spent some quality time with James Aune’s “Cultures of Discourse: Marxism and Rhetorical Theory” trying to tag it with detailed marginalia since it’s one of the few pieces from Contemporary Rhetorical Theory that are on my exam list for comps. Being a neophyte when it comes to Marxist histories and theories, I’m sure I gleaned less than 10% of the text; nevertheless, I found it interesting and potentially and unexpectedly helpful.

The piece is pulled from (as far as I can tell) an unremarkable 1990 edited collection called Argumentative Theory and the Rhetoric of Assent. Aune begins by plotting “a map of [Marxism’s] research program,” leaning heavily on Alvin Gouldner’s synthesis, and pulling a productive dialectic from a key tension between structure and struggle. By structure Aune means Marxism as a science, stressing “a deterministic view of ideology,” where capitalism’s fall is inevitable (citing Lenin and Althusser as key figures). By struggle Aune imagines the version of Marxism that foregrounds critique, and requires some form of organizing, resistance — and ultimately persuasion — in order to engender revolution (he cites Gramsci, Horkheimer and Adorno, and Eagleton as key figures in the second). He then sketches four ways that Marxism has traditionally attended to this tension, arguing that Marxism has only tangentially dealt with rhetorical theory, while rhetorical theory has only tangentially dealt with Marxism.

Aune’s hope, then, is to begin a conversation in the field that retains the ongoing critique of ideology while promoting some sort of material political and social change. To do so, he focuses on one of three levels of abstraction — the mode of production — in social analysis as articulated by Erik Olin Wright in Classes (1985).

Researchers focusing on the mode of production examine “the way in which dominant forms of argument relate to forces and relations of production in the most abstract way” (545; emphasis in original). For Aune, focusing on the mode of production helps dodge rhetorical studies’ “privileging of symbol-use over labor as the constitutive activity of human beings” which “risks being coopted by larger forces of domination in our culture” (546). Aune would have us pay attention to rhetoric’s dominant forms of argument — as cultures of discourse — as products of labor, “as material as a factory or a Hitler speech” (546). He describes these cultures of discourses in detail as traditional, critical, and poststructural and then proceeds to offer four takeaways on developing a Marxist rhetorical theory, including foregrounding the role of labor and class struggle in our theorizing, but also revisiting certain helpful aspects of the cultures of discourse that might contribute to Marxist theory, such as using common sense as the origin of enthymeme or thinking more broadly about oppression in terms of race, sexuality, or via the status of professionalized/specialized (and thus authorized) discourses.

As I returned from the Small Press Book Fair this weekend, of course, modes of production — specifically material ones — are front an center in my mind, especially since the purpose of the trip was to see how (1) I might propose a similar fest/fair here in Syracuse and (2) to think about potential sites for dissertation research. Zine and small press fairs exist all over the US. And although they are largely white, they are diverse in other ways and bring together a mix of working class/artistic subjectivities. What Aune’s piece does for me then, is help me think through “Do It Yourself” articulations from the perspective of Marxist rhetorical theory. The very phrasing of DIY emphasizes labor (“do it!”), but for much of my class and my blogging this semester I’ve been framing it via ecologic rhetorical theory — emphasizing the “yourself” part of the phrase, the part that considers the self as a node in a network. And while Aune also helps address co-optation, a Marxist rhetorical theory could help think critically about the craft of print culture and potentially address the question of why print still hold a special place in our hearts. Perhaps it’s because our labor is still marked, inscribed, and circulated though the paper, the binding, and the edges of the book. It’s maybe a reminder that writing is work.

Booty from Buffalo Small Press Book Fair 2013
Booty from Buffalo Small Press Book Fair 2013

Front Matter & Ch 1: Graduate Study for the 21st Century

As I mentioned last week, while in Canada I started Gregory Colon Semenza’s 2005 book, Graduate Study for the 21st Century: How to Build an Academic Career in the Humanities. I first heard about it a few years ago from Collin Brooke, and received it as a gift from my sis for my following birthday (2006?). I’ve skimmed pieces from it since, but now I’m hoping to use it to string together some pertinent advice to sustain me over the next few years. Semenza is a lit professor at UConn and penned this book in the years immediately following the completion of his doctorate at Penn State, a fact he makes known in the introduction.

Front matter (acknowledgements, forward by Berube and intro):

  • Acknowledges Kathryn Hume’s Surviving Your Academic Job Hunt (will be checking this out in the next 3 years)
  • Berube: A professor’s job is a 60-hour week, but “you get to choose which 60” (xv).
  • Berube: A good professional means earning people’s trust. Success = having “your colleagues say, ‘good call'” (xv).
  • University brands don’t matter as much as they used to. Today, academics who work hard and distinguish themselves (usually via a solid publishing record and good teaching evals) get hired.
  • The primary objective of graduate school is “the accumulation of knowledge in an advanced area of study” or “to know something extraordinary or at least something ordinary deeply.The second should be to lean how to discuss that subject clearly and persuasively”(4).
  • Burnout is real danger, but at the same time, expect to work 70 hours per week (huh?!)
  • Graduate student unionization can and should play a key role in improving the work conditions of both graduate students and faculty.

Notable numbers:

  • 10%: the percentage of universities that are considered research (R1s). Although specialization is important, a broad area of knowledge is a smart approach.
  • 9 years: “the average time for completing the Ph.D. … in the humanities” (5)
  • 40-50%: the attrition rate for Ph.D. programs in the US in 2004 (according to the Chronicle)
  • 9%: the rate at which TT jobs decreased between 1981 and 2005 (partially thanks to graduate student labor).

Chapter 1: The Culture of a Graduate Program

Semenza first outlines the typical organization of a department: administrators, faculty (assistant, associate, professor), staff, contingent faculty, GAs, and admin assistants/secretaries and gets it right. Reading this made me realize how much my WPA training has taught me. I pieced this all together on my own during my first year as WC admin.

On research, teaching, service and tenure:

  • Brief discussion on tenure and its importance. Semenza encourages any future scholar to research the history and purpose of tenure, calling it “the primary legal guarantor and protector of academic freedom” (19).
  • Most R1s weigh tenure cases as such: 60% research, 30% teaching, and 10% service.
  • Expectations at R1s = an article per year and a book every 6 or 7 years; however, guidelines are hardly explicit and the definition of a “regular” publishing record is purposely vague in contracts to reserve the right to deny tenure
  • Teaching is important in the humanities because its well-being is weighed by enrollment, not by research grants and the like.

On the politics of the place:

  • “You must show respect for the ghosts that linger in your department” (25). That is, pay attention and understand why things are the way they are. Why Prof X won’t work well with Prof Y, why your TA training program is set up a certain way, or why the Department has particular (if not peculiar) policies. The consequences for arguing from ignorance can be big.
  • The cast of department characters include: The High Priest(esse)s, Deadwood, The Black Sheep, The Careerists, Service Slaves, The Curmudgeons, The Young Turks, The Talker, Theory Boy (or Girl), Life-Long “Learners,” Everyman/woman (26-28). Hilarious and true.
  • “As a graduate student … you will always feel transitional, a hybrid between what you were, and undergrad, and what you hope to be, a professor” (29). Where does that place me? Seems to character 75% of current doc students.

On merit:

  • Graduate students who fail do so because they lack organization and motivation; not because they lack intelligence or creativity. Semenza argues that if profs are working 65 hours per week grad students should work 70.
  • “You should become a professor because you are so completely obsessed with your subject and the skills it demands and because you believe it is the single most important thing you can pass on to other people. Nothing else will do” (30).

Ruining your kid

AM got her face scratched by the cat two weeks ago, fell and broke her collarbone last week in Canada, and now, as we were on our neighborhood walk last night, smacked her face on concrete stairs that lead to the reservoir near our house. She fell forward and kissed the edge of the next step, biting her tongue and cutting her chin open. Thankfully it wasn’t serious, but it was bloody and it set us off. But after the initial fall she cried more about having to go home than about her swollen tongue and scraped chin. After some ice chips and a band aid, a bath and some Sandra Boynton action, she slept through the night and awoke ready to play again this morning.

I would argue that Emily and I are pretty chill parents and tend not to overreact or get hysterical when AM falls or hurts herself. But given these recent scares, imagine my guilt in reading Lori Gottlieb’s recent piece from the Atlantic, “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy.” Gottlieb’s point, hardly a new one in parenting or educative circles lately, is that we are “ruining” our children by protecting them from unhappiness. While not quite as extreme as the Tiger Mom tenets, the piece is heavy on anecdotal evidence to support a supposed epidemic of overprotective, hyperactive parents. According to Gottlieb and the therapists she quotes, parents should back off their kids and reflect on how their own issues get in the way of their child’s best interest. Parents, they say, get home from work and don’t want to spend their time arguing with Holden Caulfield. One psychiatrist goes so far to give this example: if a toddler trips on a rock at a park (or a staircase?), let her “experience that momentary confusion” in order to “grapple with the frustration of having fallen.” You hear that, kid? Wipe that blood off your own chin.

Ok, ok. I’m being a bit unfair. I work at private northeastern university, so her point isn’t lost on me. I’ve seen helicopter parenting here, for sure, but also at the relatively wealthy public jr/sr. high school I taught at 10 years ago. My wife saw the same narcissism at a private local K-12 school in the last five years. I’ve seen the effects of inflated self-esteem in some of my students and my teaching evals sketch me as a tough grader. I understand the problem is out there and how it gets in the way of honesty. That said, Gottlieb refuses, like Atlantic authors before her, to ignore that the “us” and the “our” tends to be families of privilege. “Nowadays,” she frames the problem, “it’s not enough to be happy—if you can be even happier.” And by the way, too many choices leads to a personality crisis.

The latter complaint reminds me of Jean Anyon’s classic article “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work.” In her essay, Anyon notes that the extent of “choice” children are given in their schooling is reflective of social class and what also factors into whether said child will enter into a mechanical profession or one that is more geared toward knowledge work (managers, lawyers, doctors, etc). The working class student, so it goes, will be told what to do. The affluent professional’s kid is always given options.

I bring this up only to say that what bugs me about this article is not only its exaggerated claims (a very small minority of parents will fuck their children up by helicoptering), but that the evidence simply places too much emphasis on the agency of the parent at the expense of ignoring the social-political context of family itself. While a parent can certainly “ruin” a kid through abuse or through spoiling, Gottlieb’s arguments smack of upper class anxiety (or perhaps, resentment). Either way, I’m not buying it.

Ceruzzi, Paul. “The Advent of Commercial Computing, 1945-1956.” A History of Modern Computing. 2nd ed. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003. 13-46. Print.

Summary

Ceruzzi traces the development of commercial computing by narrating its history in relation to the most influential machine birthed from that era, the UNIVAC, “Universal Automatic Computer,” completed in 1951 by J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly. The UNIVAC was designed as a system with an internal design that allowed users to manipulate it based on the problems to be solved. Its internal memory and use of tape for input/output made for a much faster machine, which helped with sorting data as an “information processing system,” fulfilling a growing need for businesses. The UNIVAC’s ability to automate functions, saved companies time and labor, helped its assent and influence on subsequent computers, such as IBM’s 701. Although Ceruzzi touches on other technology, including the drum, the purpose of this chapter is to explain how the UNIVAC’s design made it the first true electronic computer.

Quotes

Computing after 1945 is a story of people who at critical moments redefined the nature of the technology itself. In doing so they opened up computing to new markets, new applications, and a new place in the social order. (14)

The acronym came from “Universal Automatic Computer,” a name that they chose carefully. “Universal” implied that it could solve problems encountered by scientists, engineers, and businesses. “Automatic” implied that it could solve complex problems without requiring constant human intervention or judgment, as existing techniques required. (15)

No one who saw a UNIVAC failed to see how much it differed from existing calculators and punched card equipment. It used vacuum tubes – thousands of them. It stored data on tape, not cards. It was a large and expensive system, not a collection of different devices. The biggest difference was its internal design, not visible to the casual observer. The UNIVAC was a “stored program” computer, one of the first. More than anything, that made it different from the machines it was designed to replace. (20)

Many design features that alter became commonplace first appeared in the UNIVAC: among them were alphanumeric as well as numeric processing, an extensive use of extra bits for checking, magnetic tapes for bulk memory, and circuits called “buffers” that allowed high-speed transfers between the fast delay line and slow tape storage units. (29)

To the extent that its customers perceived the UNIVAC as an “electronic brain,” it was because it “knew” where to find the desired data on a tape, could wind or rewind a tape to that place, and could extract (or record) data automatically. Customers regarded the UNIVAC as an information process system, not a calculator. As such, it replaced not only existing calculating machines, but also the people who tended them. (30)

Questions

How does this chapter – and the UNIVAC specifically – factor into the focus of this week theme, “what the web was built for”? That is, what role did these computers play in the development of the web?

Ceruzzi primarily focuses on the technical innovations of commercial computing, but does indicate a few of the social and cultural effects of them, such as the effect the tape system had on labor in companies. What might be some others? How would a more complete understanding of the history of computing, or perhaps of business, help to understand this?