A Christmas Present from the MLA

Even now, the thought of going on the academic job market seems so spiritually suicidal that I would rather abandon my career altogether than submit to the scrutiny of another semihostile search committee. As far as I can tell, the hiring process in English favors psychopaths with ice water in their veins, which explains a lot about the changing climate of the profession.

Mind you, I am not bashing the leadership of the MLA — which is, of course, full of well-meaning mandarins (God bless them, every one) — so much as I am lamenting the unstoppable transformation of a gentle, harmless occupation into a cannibalistic nightmare straight out of Goya. —Thomas BentonA Christmas Present from the MLA (Chronicle)

This is the most cynical, bleakest essay I’ve seen from Benton. Perhaps he feels he’s doing his duty by scaring away more would-be graduate students. I regularly share Benton’s “Conference Man” reflections with students who are thinking about graduate school, but I think this essay goes well beyond unpleasant realism.

Benton refers to a 4/4 teaching load in a list of the “just about anything” that successful job seekers will have to face on the road to tenure.

That’s my load.

There are times when it drives me crazy. Fortunately, I haven’t been getting any pressure to publish a second book; I’ve been getting lots of positive feedback from my chair and my dean, I can’t think of a single colleague whom I dislike; we have an active support staff that takes a lot of the pressure off of me when it comes to dealing with students who have bad attitudes. I’ve taught some students four, six, or eight times, which means I get to watch them develop from doe-eyed freshmen to intellectually mature adults; I’ve taught certain courses enough times that I have the luxury of tweaking my teaching materials to optimize them, rather than scrambling to figure out what to do each week. I’ve got the opportunity to propose new courses in areas that interest me. My dean hasn’t turned down a travel funidng request yet. (In fact, the limiting factor on my conference travel is not travel support from the dean, but the amount of time my wife is willing to let me spend away from home.)

Quite frankly, a 3/3 load would make a huge difference in my productivity. Last semester, my dean asked me to take an overload, so a normal load will feel like a break. But when a January course that I had planned was canceled, I asked not to be assigned a replacement course. So this term, I’ll get a taste of what a 3/3 load would really be like.

As a grad student, I never imagined that the biggest barrier to getting published would be time — as in, at any moment there are a half dozen CFPs that are jumping up and down screaming my name, and one by one the deadlines whoosh by.

This term, I have a MWF class, and then a class that meets only on Tuesday, and another class that meets only on Thursday. Of course, with committee work and office hours and such, the day fills up pretty quickly. Also, because my wife is now teaching an evening course, I have to leave work early in the afternoon order to watch the kids while she prepares her lecture.

Last term, I was so tightly scheduled that I only had one four-hour block of unscheduled time — that was the only spot where I could hope to get any serious reading or writing done. This term I’ll have several such blocks. And I plan to use them.