Monday, July 27, 2009

Ah, the rejection......musings and mutterings on the field

So this past week I've received news from 2 places that I will not be working at those places. Well, more than 2, but those 2 are academic jobs I wanted, rather than mundane jobs I need. And yes, the distinction is a purposeful one and I mean it.

Both were very gracious in their rejections of my candidacy. One I was close. I was their second choice and I was told in the end what made the difference is that the candidate who was awarded the position had a teaching award from prestigious university whereas I just have good recommendations and good student reviews. The other I was not even a serious contender for. But the letter writer compared the current situation with his/her own job search 20 years ago and advised those of us receiving the letter to soldier on (my words), the field needed us (author's words).

I tend to agree. The field does need us. Humanities generally, but especially Classics and now Medieval Studies are beleaguered. Classics departments are disappearing and have been for some time. And we all know that lines for Medievalists have been disappearing too: no, not just in the recent economic downturn. Where 25 years ago a department may have 2 or even 3 medievalists, it now has one if any. My own former department, as I've remarked before, is getting rid of medieval studies, leaving the surveys to the Renaissance people who give you Beowulf and Chaucer and that's the extent of medieval literature.

This makes it hard to find a job in one's field. Duh. And oddly, it happens at a time when popular culture interest in things Classical and Medieval is thriving! History Channel, The Learning Channel (TLC), Syfy, Comedy Central, movies, plays, novels and popular history on these subjects garner a great deal of interest not to mention Ren faires and reenactments. Ok, so yes, I've commented on this before both here and over at Modern Medieval, so no need to rehash it.

But I bring it up here again. The field does need us. We do great work. We love to teach. We don't mind the service requirements and sometimes find ourselves enjoying them. The field needs our perspective, our fresh and eager perspectives, and our energy and excitement and ideas. Sadly, the field won't be getting what it needs. The field isn't big enough and is shrinking. There isn't room for everyone, not even in subfields, who wants to practice their field. That leaves the field as a whole more anemic. And it leaves the jobless mouldering in adjunctville, a level of hell that is reserved for those who don't deserve it their only sin being not being the lucky one who got the job. Being an adjunct slowly and ever so surely for most erodes all those qualities that they could have offered the field leaving them only the ability to teach introductory courses and the disapproval of their colleagues. In a recent Chronicle of Higher Ed article, one full-timer mused that adjuncts should *NOT* be hired to TT slots when a fresh graduate student just coming out fits the bill. The reason you might ask? Because according to this out of touch full-timers, adjuncts don't teach full time. No, adjuncts don't teach full time--they just typically teach twice to three times as many courses in a given academic year than their full time counterparts, for 1/3 of the pay, no benefits, and not knowing semester to semester if they have a job. It means that other than freeing up full timers to conduct their research, adjuncts don't get to contribute to the field much. They have no time: travelling and teaching 4-8 courses per semester at several institutions leaves little time to make contributions.

This leaves the path of the independent scholar. But such a person to be successful as an independent scholar frankly needs some level of financial security. This means that the scholar's spouse earns a tidy packet so that the scholar may be underemployed and be able to pursue scholarship; or the scholar has to have wealth in the family or perviously earned wealth; or to be able to work in an environment such as an academic institution or parts of the govt that allow for both some level of financial security and access to the materials with which to carry on scholarship. Still, the lion's share of the scholar's time in the latter situation is spent on the duties of the job, not on scholarship, and so time must be stolen from other areas of life. Speaking as one who tried to do this for some years, it is difficult at best to accomplish anything meaningful and productive in a timely fashion. Not impossible, but one must be driven to it.

So let's get down to brass tacks. I appreciate being let down easy. It is so much better than the cold, personality deprived, letter that just says "So Sorry, best of luck!" or worse, no communication at all. But in the end, its still a rejection, meaning those of us receiving that letter continue to face the realities of wanting, even needing, to contribute to the field we love, but the field we love, while acknowledging its need of us with one hand, shoves us out of the room with the other. In the end, it means that both parties, the field as a whole, and the rejected, will have significant unfilled needs, leaving both much worse off.

I don't know what the answers are. The author of the letter I mentioned I think was trying to address the problem, encouraging us to keep the faith, so to speak. Saying that we should keep going, a spot will open up, the field will welcome us, the field needed us. I hope that the author is right; I didn't get that job, but maybe there's another ahead that I will. Not only do I need the field, but I'm needed. Though in the end, all there is is hope that it will get better. So thanks for the oddest and kindest rejection letter I've ever received. I hope you're right, Author, I hope you're right. For all of us.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bad luck, Larry, and luck with which I can very much sympathise. Of course there is pressure from outside to provide money for science and industry over and above the humanities (and if any of the climate alarmists are right not before time!) but little integration of the efforts that money goes towards. It would be nice, all the same, if growing enrolments would provide enough money to grow the faculties those enrolling students apparently want teaching them. There is here a question of attitude, about what can be cut and still function, that pushes humanities towards the reliance on low-end staff and small faculty. (Cliopatria have been vocal on this just lately as some contributors face cuts in their own departments while seeing no cuts made to campus police, sports coaches, etc.) But the attitudes are partly formed by the money problem, and also partly by the basic problem that we do something whose returns are unquantifiable. A science project either makes its desired outcome or it doesn't; a sports team wins or it doesn't; but if we slightly broaden the understanding of King Alfred's policy of literate officialdom, er... did we win? Or should we have done it more? And it's never a finished thing, we can't say someone won't change the answer in ten years. This is very hard to evaluate, and the great thing that the UK's Research Assessment Exercise does, despite all that I hate it for, is install some means of agreed evaluation that offers some defence against this non-comprehension by the bean counters.