Thursday, November 01, 2007

Moving up or moving out

The big dust-up over junior faculty moving (see the posts at Dr. Crazy's, Maggie May's, and at the snark-about-students blog), and especially the tone of animosity with which those junior faculty are attacked, is both dismaying and bewildering. For the record, I'm senior faculty and honestly can't see what the problem is with junior faculty looking for jobs. It's especially fascinating that this gets characterized as selfish, for what's more selfish than demanding that someone hang around and publish like crazy for six years without anything more than a "you'll probably get tenure" promise to go on? Pot, meet kettle.

One perspective that no one has touched on yet is this: if I were a beginning job candidate, with a Ph. D. on which the ink was still fresh, all this talk about job-hopping junior professors would be making me nervous. I'd wonder how I could ever compete with people who already have a tenure-track job and are looking to move up. I can't say anything useful about the junior/senior split, but I can talk a little about this issue. (These are my personal opinions and observations; if, God forbid, anyone figures out who I am or where I work, they should not be taken as either exemplary or representative of the opinions there.)

First of all, things do even out when you have a pool of candidates. Let's say that you have 200 qualified candidates for an average search (I've heard of some pools of 700, but I don't think that's usual). Of those, extra materials will be requested from some--a shorter list, and maybe 10-12 will be interviewed at MLA. (Some schools interview 30 or more.) Of those, 2 will be invited to campus, and 1 will get the job.

In that mix, when considering who'll be invited for MLA interviews, there'll probably be some new-minted Ph.D. degree holders, maybe some advanced ABDs, some new assistant professors looking to move, and maybe some advanced assistants or associates also looking to move. Assume that the letters, research agendas, and so on make those in this list (maybe 30-50 people) seem like good prospects. Each category, though, has advantages and disadvantages:

  • ABD. If you're ABD and in this group (i.e., the group we're considering inviting for MLA), your research probably looks really promising, and your letters are probably glowing. Disadvantage: You're, well, ABD. We would need to be reasonably sure that you would finish your degree before you get to campus and are likely to look for that assurance both in the letters and in our MLA interview with you.
  • New Ph.D. You have the degree in hand, and you probably have a good, competitive research agenda. The disadvantage is that you may not have as much teaching experience, but here's the thing: we don't expect as much teaching experience from you, although we do expect interesting ways of talking and thinking about the courses you could teach for us.
  • Fairly new assistant professor. You've probably served on committees, taught a full load, and have a research program in place. Your narrative has to make sense to us, though, especially if you've bounced around in a few t-t jobs. Why are you applying? Is it to move up? Get a reduced teaching load? Your letter probably explains this (or not, if you just have one job and it's clear that we would be a step up for you).
  • Advanced assistant professor or associate professor. You know the ropes and have published enough that we know what we'll be getting, which is an advantage. A committee will have different research expectations for someone who has been out for a few years, too. If you're a fifth- or sixth-year assistant, though, we may wonder about your tenure prospects where you are or whether you really want an offer from us just for leverage with your home department. If you're an associate and we're advertising for an assistant professor, you may have some 'splaining to do. Are you really willing to give up tenure and start the tenure clock over at this job? That may be the case, but again, the narrative (loosely conceived) that you're telling us has to make sense to us. Also, if it's not advertised as "open rank," there's no chance that the committee will suddenly decide to hire at the associate level, so using that as a negotiating tactic is a non-starter. If the ad had specified associate professors, we'd have had a different pool to choose from, and such a switch would never be approved by the administration.

    A committee can't second-guess why candidates apply for a job, or why they want to move, or anything like that. It can only try to choose people who seem to be the best fit. My point is that candidates of all levels can be that "best fit."
    [Updated to add: There's an index of all the posts on the junior/senior divide at Prone to Laughter.]
  • 8 comments:

    ArticulateDad said...

    All I can say is what we really need is an influx of interest and cash from politicians to support an effort to increase the professoriate. It's a lot easier to fit into a roomy garment than a corset. Isn't it time we leave nineteenth century fashion behind?

    It seems to me that any department faced with the prospect of hiring two or three new faculty rather one just might be inspired to be bold. Some of us just don't fit well into pre-existing pie charts of specializations. That doesn't make us any less worthy, just a harder fit.

    undine said...

    I saw that Boston U is hiring a big group of new faculty, but most departments don't have that kind of money (to hire multiple people at once). You're right: we need an influx of interest and cash from politicians, but with the cash going into a giant sinkhole Guess Where and politicians who'd rather see us teach a 7/7 load ("the high school teachers do it!") and pay for our own research trips, I don't see that happening anytime soon. Maybe that's too defeatist an attitude, but I keep looking for evidence to the contrary and not finding any.

    ArticulateDad said...

    Undine, your remarks simply give more fire to the cause that all of us need to speak out more openly, raise the issues on talk shows, in op-ed pieces, letters, blog posts, and in questions at political events.

    Headlines now are about Hollywood writers demanding fair pay for their creative endeavors. Great. Sure, I think everyone who makes a lasting impact on society deserves fair wages AND residuals.

    Hmmm... don't teachers have a lasting impact? Don't we contribute to the success of our students, and thereby to society, including the economy? What sort of residuals might we command? Say, 1% of every former students future wages for five years?

    Maybe that wouldn't sound quite so absurd if it were stated as a goal for pledges, kind of like tithing a church. Every graduate should pledge to contribute 1% of their wages every year to their university or college. And the schools in turn should vow to return those funds for increasing and supporting the professoriate. Even without an influx from taxes, we'd have a windfall.

    It sounds absurd. But there's a certain logic to it. We need the political will to muster teeth behind every candidate's effort to portray themselves as "the education President" or some such. Remember back when: our present, destructive commander-in-chief once had the audacity to refer to himself by that epithet.

    undine said...

    Maybe some high-profile academics of the kind that actually get on talk shows could do this (although their salaries are high enough that they may not be concerned).

    Yes, I think we contribute to the success of our students, but if you're in the humanities, that can only be shown indirectly. I think the 1% tithe would create resentment if it were proposed as something to happen in the first five years, but later--maybe it would work as a campaign.

    Cero said...

    When I was new, everyone was already job hopping. I figured the deal was, join in and let the chips fall where they might. I find this idea that people shouldn't go for the best situation they can get, utterly odd.

    One is supposed to hide one's desire for another job, but one year during Drastic Budget Cuts we were all on the market. It was hilarious. I'd run into full professors in both my departments in upper floor hotel hallways at the MLA, and we would know why we were all there - and we'd salute each other with a cheery and heartfelt "Good luck!"

    undine said...

    cero, that's a measure of everyone's quality right there, that so many of you got MLA conference interviews and that you were all cheerful about seeing each other there. Professional, that's what you all were.

    Cameron Robertson said...

    I personally think moving up is always much easier than moving out. Moving out to a completely new and strange field requires a lot of luck while moving up the same direction is less challenging because you already have prior experience in that particular field. Regardless of that sentiment, I probably couldn't fail to agree that more funds need to be channelled to these few groups of fresh grads requiring assistance to secure a job. Even if it means the grads need to relocate elsewhere, then so be it. Just ensure all the necessities are fully provided, be it rental, storage units, manpower and affected costs.

    Cameron Robertson said...

    I personally think moving up is always much easier than moving out. Moving out to a completely new and strange field requires a lot of luck while moving up the same direction is less challenging because you already have prior experience in that particular field. Regardless of that sentiment, I probably couldn't fail to agree that more funds need to be channelled to these few groups of fresh grads requiring assistance to secure a job. Even if it means the grads need to relocate elsewhere, then so be it. Just ensure all the necessities are fully provided, be it rental, storage units, manpower and affected costs.