Let’s Make the Academic Job Market More Humane

It’s been decades since I’ve had the “I’m in school again and I forgot to study for the test” nightmare, but it hasn’t been so long since I’ve had nightmares about the faculty job search.

I did have one nightmare campus visit, where I was told I was one of six candidates brought to campus to interview for two positions, and that one of the other candidates was “unbeatable.” For my job talk I chose a topic related to the technical writing / media position I was applying for, and after it was over I saw the crowded room full of English faculty members mostly clear out, so that I and the search committee had a well-stocked refreshment table all to ourselves.

“Why didn’t you give a talk on literature?” asked a sympathetic, but clearly disappointed search committee member.

“Because you advertised a technical writing job,” I replied.

That department was not ready — before YouTube, before Facebook, before Google’s IPO — for a job talk on memes. I got the very clear sense that, even though the position for which I was interviewing would have involved teaching courses in technical writing and media, I would have nevertheless been expected to publish traditional literary theory scholarship in order for my work to “count” towards tenure. That’s one reason I chose a very cutting edge, very nerdy topic for my job talk — I wanted to know whether this group would have supported the kind of new media work I wanted to do.

I withdrew from that search in order to accept my current position, where I am in my 20th year as a generalist in a much smaller department that saw my new media activities as a strength (and where I also teach Shakespeare and general lit surveys).

Decency matters.

Decency matters so much that it is worth the extra effort to treat job applicants as you would like to be treated. Yes, the market was brutal when I went out twenty -five years ago, but it is much worse now. Believe recent graduates when they tell you that.

We must recognize that we are so fortunate to have the jobs we have. Colleges and universities, I know, as workplaces can vary widely in quality. I spent the first four years of my career at a dysfunctional hellhole in Billings, Montana. But even in the midst of the shit-show that was that college, I enjoyed my students, the teaching, and the advising. I enjoyed the moments I squirreled away to work on my first book. Once I closed the classroom door or my office door, I was happy.

And even if you feel justified in whining about your place of employment, remember this: there are literally hundreds of people who would like to do what you are doing, but will never get that chance. This brutal reality imposes upon all of us the obligation to be the best historians and teachers we can be. You must remember, no matter how good you think you are at this work, no matter how paradigm-shattering you consider your research, it is almost certain that there is someone better than you, shut out by the brutality of the academic job market. One of my colleagues at the dysfunctional hellhole, who doubled as an associate pastor at a local Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, told me during my on-campus interview that being a college professor was the best part-time job in the world. I suspect that we all know people who take this approach to academia, who do not produce or take their teaching seriously, but I can think of no attitude more loathsome and disrespectful to the many hundreds of talented historians who will never get a chance. —Michael Leroy Oberg