Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, January 11, 2010

the absent presence

Brian Croxall wrote a paper for a session at the recent Modern Language Association Convention, but couldn't be there himself to read it. And that became, in a way, the subject of the paper:

Again, I’m not at the MLA this year because it’s not economically feasible. I had hoped to be here for job interviews—as well as to speak as a member of this panel discussion. This was my third year on the job market, and I applied to every job in North America that I was even remotely qualified for: all 41 of them. Unfortunately, I did not receive any interviews, despite having added two articles accepted by peer-reviewed journals, five new classes, and several new awards and honors to my vita. According to my records, applying to those 41 jobs cost me $257.54. I was prepared to pay the additional expenses of attending the MLA ($125 for registration, $279.20 for a plane ticket, approximately $180.00 for lodging with a roommate at a total of $584.20) out of pocket so that I could have a chance of getting one of those 41 jobs. I was even luckier than most faculty (remember, most of today’s faculty are contingent) in that my institution was willing to provide me with $200 support to attend conferences throughout the academic year. But once it became apparent that I wasn’t going to be having any interviews, I could no longer justify the outlay of $400.00 out of a salary that puts me only $1,210 above the 2009 Federal Poverty Guidelines. (And yes, that means I do qualify for food stamps while working a full-time job as a professor!)

I teach at a college that sends a great many of its graduates on to further education. I’ve written recommendation letters for students who went on to Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Chicago — you name it. Students that I’ve been particularly close to now teach at a wide range of institutions, for example Washington and Lee and Cornell, and others are doing very well in graduate school now. But it has become increasingly difficult for me to feel good about writing those letters. My default approach is to discourage, though I am always willing to help those people who persist through my discouragement. But at this point I simply cannot believe that the institutional structures of the university that we are all familiar with will last much longer. I just wish I could imagine what it is that will replace them.


  • You're not alone in discouraging students to go to graduate school.


    Maybe I'm unusual in the respect that a love of learning and desire to acquire more knowledge and skill were my primary motivations for going to grad school. Like many others, I'm not working in my field of choice, but I'm not so bothered by it anymore.

  • You know, I should have said something about that — about the value of attending grad school for its own sake, separate from any career hopes. I have no problems with that. But most of my students who want to go on have in mind — though they often don't fully realize it — the desire to have a job very much like mine. But tenure-track jobs at highly selective and financially secure liberal-arts colleges . . . well, they're not exactly growing on trees.

  • I wonder if you've read or plan to read Louis Menand's The Marketplace of Ideas. It came out about a week ago and deals with many of the issues you describe, but mostly looks at how the current situation arose historically, moving from the 19th C University to the present.

    It's very much worth reading for any academic who has grad students or regularly sends undergrads to academic (as opposed to professional) grad schools.

  • Thanks for discouraging me when I was at Wheaton, Dr. Jacobs. I mean that. And you weren't the only one. Though I have gone on to pursue a Master's in Library Science (which is a rather perfunctory professional degree), so I guess I haven't avoided grad school entirely.

    I'll be finished this spring, at which point I'll have to see how different the job market for librarians is from the job market for academics. Whatever happens, though, I'm planing to stick here in Mid-Missouri, Wendell Berry style.

    Being in Jefferson City, I can always work for the gummint if I have to. :)

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