just a little thing…

04Sep10

…called the job market.

[WARNING: very long post ahead.]

First, let me just say this about the year from hell I’ve just been through: without going into any detail, I will say that I have moved. I’m still a student at my graduate university with the same advisor but I no longer live there; I’ve moved several hundred miles away. This is a very good thing.

Second, things are much better in my day to day life. So for that, I’m grateful. But what happened has changed me drastically. Yeah, I’ve learned things about myself but they were things I already knew. I’ve been through really rough shit before. But really I lost more than I gained. I’ve lost some friends. I’ve lost five years.** And, in a big way, I’ve lost some of my faith in people. Now, I know how horrible people can be to each other. I grew up in a toxic family situation and the way that the death of one of my parents played out was a showcase of the absolute worst in people. So I am not someone who thinks everybody just loves each other. But I think I was a person who believed that people would take the time to judge me based on the facts in front of them, rather than run off with false theories because it was easier than taking a moment to figure out what had gone wrong and what part they may have played in the problem. I was a person who believed that people in power in the supposed genteel world of academia would stand up for people not in power who were being abused. It’s probably a good thing that I now know that that’s not the case but it makes me a worse person, a more bitter person, a nastier person, because of it.

[**Part of why last year was so difficult was because I’d spent the previous four years ignoring signs that my training had gone seriously awry. They were there, I recognized them, but I saw no way to fix them. I was isolated in my department, facultywise. The one faculty member I was working with was a very limited source of support; indeed, as it turns out, wasn’t a source of support at all but was rather a source of torment. And, from early on, it was clear that, while if anybody had been paying attention to my progress through the program, they would have seen instantly that I had fallen through the cracks from my first day on campus, nobody was paying attention to me. My department fundamentally doesn’t care about me and, judging by their actions, wishes I weren’t around. But I ignored all of those signs because that was the only way to get through. But what happened last year made me confront the sheer waste that my graduate career has been. I’ll salvage it but I shouldn’t have to. The bare minimum these things are supposed to do is train graduate students in their field of inquiry; that wasn’t done. Therefore, I’ve lost five years.]

I’d love to say that I’m moving on but I’m not. I’m doing what needs to be done to get this degree but I’m proceeding with caution. Really, I’m waiting for the next round of this, because whether it happens again in a few months, or in my dissertation defense, or both, it’s going to happen again, in some shape or form. But maybe this time I won’t be caught so completely unawares. At some point, down the line, I’ll probably find some measure of forgiveness about the situation. But that’s several years off. What happened had no basis in fact and therefore was unnecessary and I think people who casually create unnecessary catastrophic emotional upheaval are among the worst kind of people there are.

Now, as Miranda Hart says at the beginning of her BBC sitcom, on with the show!

So I’m on the market this year. (Obviously my discussion of that process in this space over the next year will be quite limited.) As everyone who’s on the market is doing, I’m poring over the listings. Now, I’m sure we’ve all gotten a similar piece of advice: apply for everything you’re remotely eligible. But I’m not. And it’s all in large part b/c of the past several years.

First, I have geographic restraints: no one region is completely off the list, although there are several states that probably are. But what is off the list is anything that smacks of “middle of nowhere.” Now my graduate institution isn’t exactly middle of nowhere but it was small enough to count. “Middle of nowhere” is basically my catchall term for small towns, places that aren’t close to decent-sized cities, and places without much diversity. Now that cuts out huge swathes of the country and virtually eliminates the small liberal arts colleges, much to my regret. But as much as I think I would like to teach at one of those, I’d also like to have a social life and a fighting chance of getting into a romantic relationship at any point in my life, so I just don’t think I can take a chance with them. (And, with the listings in my field this year, these are real choices and lines that will have to be drawn in the sand. I’m not just saying this in a vacuum.)

My next issue is qualifications. First, a digression: when it comes to academic things, I’m conservative. I have a very low tolerance for bullshit and, accordingly, I don’t bullshit well. I don’t make sweeping statements in seminars. If I can’t back it up, I don’t say it. My conservative nature didn’t work so well in the coursework phase of graduate school when I went whole semesters virtually silent in class, with the exception of required presentations. I mean this literally, people. There were some classes in which I only spoke once the entire semester. This was in large part due to the fact that, for reasons not worth going into but entirely related to my effed-up graduate experience, I had to take a large number of courses completely out of my wheelhouse. Courses on subjects I don’t think I’d ever spent even a high school class period on. Now there may be some graduate level courses that are designed to work for students who have no familiarity with the historical material but these courses weren’t them. When I’m overwhelmed, as I was for the vast majority of the coursework phase, I shut down; I’m incapable of blathering on when I know I have no idea what I’m talking about. If I don’t know what I’m talking about, then I shouldn’t be talking. (Now, this is not my approach to general conversation. I’m a really chatty person and I frequently talk about things I know nothing about and am usually too stubborn to admit when I’m wrong. But I view that as a less desirable quality of mine and not a professional trait so it vanishes in the professional setting that is grad school, where I believe the quality of my thought should be at a higher standard than my chats about So You Think You Can Dance.) I’m also conservative when it comes to my scholarly work. I do a very precise kind of writing. I say little that I can’t back up. I don’t make vast historiographical claims unless I’m sure they hold. I don’t find this paralyzing. I’m not that much of a perfectionist. But, at least in initial drafts, I work from the sources and if they aren’t saying something, I don’t say it. If I surmise something that can’t be verified, I make a note of it and hope to go find it or I speak about my thought in very hesitant terms.

I say all this about my conservative nature for this reason: my refusal to speak about things I know not has an enormous impact on the jobs I believe I’m qualified for. My work straddles two geographic fields (we’ll call them G1 and G2), the latter of which is often considered a subset of two regional historiographies (R1 and R2). My work also brushes up against three other large fields, two more methodologies or interdisciplinary fields (M1 and M2) and one additional geographic field (G3). Now many might say I could apply to jobs in all seven of these areas. But here’s how I see things.

G1 is my primary affiliation. This is where I place myself as an historian. This is where I see all my future research being in. This is my most important professional association membership. This is the field I went to grad school to be trained in. This is also the field for which I’m seriously undertrained. My advisor is an expert in this country but an earlier time period and, as a result, I’ve been trained neither in my advisor’s time period or mine.

G2 is also similarly important. I don’t label myself this kind of historian but the region is central to my work and aspects of it will remain so throughout my career. However, I see myself shifting away from this field being so central to my work as the years go by. Complicating the whole picture: the way my work has been structured, there are many people, my advisor and department included, who I believe see me as more of a scholar of region G2 than G1. Oh, and by the way, I have received no training in this field.

Now, G2 doesn’t really exist as its own field outside the region itself. Depending on the time period, it gets lumped in with two major regional historiographies and is a relatively minor player in both. Now I did a minor exam field in R1 but that was a disaster. It was a last minute scramble to find something to do a field in and, again, I’ve done no coursework in the subject. The field was also thematic in nature and nowhere near comprehensive. R1 is not a field I’m willing to apply to work in, especially since getting a job in R1 would eliminate the possibility of my teaching in my primary field (G1).

R2, luckily, I think I can get out of teaching, nor do I have to apply for jobs in it. The irony here is that I’m probably slightly better trained in it than I am in the three aforementioned fields.

Now the methodologies/interdisciplinary fields: one of my friends is pushing M1 and I see his point. It does jive with some of the interests I’ve developed very late in the game and I see future work aligning with some of this field’s major concerns.

However.

M1 is a very politically charged field, for reasons I largely support. But, because of that, my complete and utter lack of training in this field (by which I mean that I haven’t done a scrap of reading of any of the key historical, literary, or scholarly texts in this field) is an insult to the field.

M2 is a geographic or regional historiography in name but it’s really a methodology. Of everything mentioned here, I have received the most training in this literature. But I loathe this methodology. It’s a fad I don’t want to join. It’s a methodology that’s bound by a chronology that makes no sense to me and, more importantly, that would exclude my own work, even if I were asking similar questions, which I am not. Even if I had the desire to attend the various conferences and workshops in this field, my work is not eligible for them.

Finally, my work, or more accurately my label as a historian of G1, brushes up against another regional body of scholarship, G3. Now I entered graduate school thinking I was going to be a historian of G1 and that I was going to situate G1 in the history of G3. In fact, b/c of the vagaries of hiring, as a practitioner of G1, I am nominally qualified to apply for jobs in G3. I think G3 is incredibly important and I’d like to claim it as part of my intellectual makeup.

However.

You know the refrain. I’m not trained in G3. I didn’t do a field in G3. For some odd reason, the professors in my department who cover G3 (of which there are several) never offered any courses in G3. What little work I’ve done in G1 hasn’t involved G3.

So where does that leave me?

Because of my conservative nature, I’m simply not willing to pretend I can instruct undergrads (and potentially grad students) in fields I’m patently not qualified in. This is not modesty. I’m talking about fields in which I haven’t read any of the major books and don’t know any of the historical facts, to say nothing of the major research questions. Now, to some degree, this includes my main field of identification but there I’m willing to fake it because that’s the field that got me into this mess, it’s the field that has kept me going, it’s the field that I want to be working in and if I’m not working in this field in some significant capacity, I’m out the door.

(And to be clear here, most of the fields I’m referring to are distinct national or regional historiographies, not small subfields that overlap each other.)

My secondary field doesn’t really have many job listings in it but, even if it did, I’d be very hesitant. I work in one niche of this field; a significant niche but a niche nonetheless. I really can’t do justice to the rest of it. But more importantly, this field has ideological commitments that I respect but don’t share. The region, however, is important enough to me to leave the field to people who do share those commitments. Now certainly, I will teach courses in this field and will be very glad to do so. But to be hired as the specialist in this field strikes me as problematic, especially since I see myself almost completely abandoning this field after my first project.

The rest of the fields, aside from the one which I strongly dislike, fall into the category of “I’m not qualified.” Nothing is going to convince me that I’m qualified to teach in these fields and since that’s the case, I can’t apply to them. It’s probably not shocking to hear that my natural conservatism on these issues got significantly worse after my entire value as a scholar was questioned last year. That’s another thing that’s not going to come back any time soon: what little confidence I may have had that I could work in fields outside my two main fields has gone completely. In fact, I don’t think I’m qualified to be on the market at all in any field, but I don’t have much of a choice about it. In some ways, that makes this job stuff easier. I’m under no illusions that I’m the “best” candidate or even one of the “best” 50 candidates, or 100, for that matter. But, on the other hand, it’s going to take a lot for me to even do a minimum of pretending to get these applications out.

So for all those reasons, I’m doing a limited search. A very limited search. A too limited search? Probably but I need to keep the mental chaos to a minimum.

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