Job applications and utopia

Thus far, at least within my field, the job market seems to be about the same as the past two years. By now I feel like an experienced hand, each year being more systematic and thorough. This year I’ve decided to use Interfolio, primarily to save myself the hassle and worry of deluging my recommenders with a ton of different requests, but also to cut out the physical assembly of the application packets — a process that I find weirdly stressful. (And don’t even talk to me about getting together all the transcript requests.)

I’ve scoured the internet for relevant postdocs and made a spreadsheet. I’ve gone through two drafts of a model research proposal for said postdocs, which I find to be the most beneficial aspect of the application process as it forces me to think concretely about the direction I want to take my research — in fact, this year I feel that I’ve done the best job of laying out a course that grows naturally out of my dissertation and opens onto a broader program that could get me all the way to full professor, were I to be so fortunate.

I’ve drafted a model cover letter that reflects a full year of teaching experience and that demonstrates the mutual reinforcement I see between my teaching and research trajectories. I have multiple syllabi, including one for a new “up-and-coming” topic in the field (Global Christianity) and an innovative interdisciplinary seminar (Images of the Devil). I have a full year of teaching evaluations to draw on (though I’ve been told that volunteering them as “evidence of teaching effectiveness” is unwise) and a letter from someone who has observed my teaching and gone over all those evaluations with me.

I hope to get through all the applications I currently have within the next two weeks, i.e., before the quarter begins, so that I don’t have to worry as much about the process during the quarter — although hopefully more listings will be posted, as the flood of listings that (based on past experience) I was expecting around August 31 did not materialize. If more listings do come up, I will have worked up enough material that I can adapt without making everything a Big Production.

In summary, I think that I am as “together” as it is possible to be in this regard, not just process-wise, but substance-wise — I have teaching experience at a great school, a clear pedagogical vision, a clear research agenda, and a proven publication record. Everything on my side of the ledger seems to be in place.

And still I feel like my applications are all going to fall into a black hole and I’ll be lucky if I get a form letter in April saying that unfortunately I was not among those selected for an interview. I don’t feel that this is particularly unjust — by which I mean that the situation as a whole is obviously unjust, but it’s not unjust to me in specific.

My principle all along has been that the outcome is far from guaranteed, and so as much as possible, I need to do what I want to do at every stage so that I would be able to look back on the experience as inherently “worth it” rather than as a sacrifice that didn’t deliver the promised results. Applications have always been the most difficult part of that for me, but perhaps if I manage to make it relatively painless and systematic, if I manage to cut out most of the stress and worry and disorganization and uncertainty, it will have been worth it to think in a concentrated way about the direction I want to take in my teaching and research — a not entirely voluntary but still valuable way of accounting for what I’ve been doing these past several years and what might grow out of that in favorable circumstances.

If Jameson can dialectically reclaim Walmart for utopian thought, perhaps one can do that for job applications as well. The miserable and demoralizing side of the process is very real — and in the above, I’m not trying to minimize the reality of that aspect so much as describe my strategies for coping with it and minimizing its impact on my life — and yet there’s something about putting together the application materials for that “dream job” that you can’t let yourself concretely hope you’ll get that might be detachable and transferable.

Most of our training induces us to think of the research and teaching as means to the end of the PhD, the entry-level job, and the all-important achievement of tenure, but I don’t think the more idealistic impulse is ever fully extinguished. After all, for most of us academics the “dream job” isn’t a matter of directly holding a certain title and drawing a paycheck from a certain school — it’s a matter of what the job will enable us to do, the time for research it will allow us, the institutional imprimatur it will provide us to give us the best chance to be heard, the kinds of students it will confront us with and the impact we will be able to have on and through them.

If job applications draw us to think about what we want to do, perhaps the hopelessness of the process, its de facto non-teleological nature, can be dialectically reversed so that they spur us to think about other circumstances in which those desires, which can perhaps be summarized as thinking seriously and inducing others to do the same, can be actualized — and then ways that those desires can even be more fully actualized outside of institutional restraints. This all may sound very unrealistic, but I don’t know how else to think of things when the “realistic” path of institutional advancement seems to be the most “unrealistic” thing of all.

26 thoughts on “Job applications and utopia

  1. (And don’t even talk to me about getting together all the transcript requests.)

    For real? Is this an American thing? I’ve never seen that in a job advertisement. Mind you, I’ve never looked at positions outside Canada. Anyway, best of luck this year.

  2. Not every job does, but some require official transcripts (and some require them from the undergrad institution as well). It’s a hassle to get the official transcripts because they need an actual signature to release them, plus there’s a fee associated with it. I sometimes suspect there’s some kind of collusion between search committees and registrar’s offices to generate these fees.

    My grad school has given me a PDF of my “unofficial” transcript, which I can sometimes use in a pinch. My undergrad school does not offer that.

  3. That’s really strange. How do your course marks from when you were eighteen or nineteen relate to your employability as a professor? I don’t get it. I understand the letters of reference, writing samples, teaching evaluations, a statement of the research program, and, perhaps, a brief reflection on “teaching philosophy,” but anything beyond that is silly. Soon you’ll have to send a basket of muffins to the hiring committee!

  4. In some cases, it’s probably a misguided desire for thoroughness — though when I was applying to Kalamazoo, the rationale was that they needed the undergrad stuff to see if you’d really had the “liberal arts experience” that they want to promote to their students. I still think they should wait for a second phase for things like that, though, if they want to use them. They’re just going to throw out 80% of the applications after the first pass anyway.

  5. It’s probably a way to have more information about a candidate in order to sort them through from “WTF? 300 applications?” to manageable “Now that’s better, we can actually read through letters.” I bet if it was legal, institutions would ask you for your height/weight and hobbies (nobody likes a philatelist)…

  6. I think they require transcripts for initial applications to cut down the number of applicants, that it’s going to cost more than postage and inconvenience to apply.

    When I was going through the ordination process, to get to the next level of “approval” status, I needed to have all of the requirements met: certain coursework in the M.Div., an undergraduate degree, pastoral evaluations, C.P.E., psychological exam, etc. Then suddenly it occured to someone that a requirement was to be a high school graduate, and I was stalled for at least 6 months because one individual decided I needed to get him a high school transcript. It didn’t matter that I was nearly finished with the Ph.D. at that point, he wanted proof that I had my 4 high school units of physical education and needed to see my grades for 12th grade band.

    But, of course, we still hear of occasional scandals of someone getting tenure and not really having the degree, or the degree came at the price of $59.99. (Wasn’t there a story along this line recently from Northern Illinois U.?)

  7. Frankly, the cover letter aspect seems strange to me as well, but perhaps I think that in large part because I am total shit at writing cover letters.

  8. “and then ways that those desires can even be more fully actualized outside of institutional restraints.”

    Here’s my utopian impulse: find a leftist sugardaddy/mommy that sets up some institutes, like conservative political and religious organizations have. Produce both high-quality scholarly research and at the same time publications and talks accessible to the wider public. Like a leftist-theological CATO. Or do these already exist?

  9. Isn’t that why we’re all here?

    My question, though, is for those who have research degrees from the UK: do you still send those transcripts? After all, there aren’t any classes or grades listed on them….and until the degree is conferred, the transcript is basically blank. Thankfully, my undergrad allows two transcript requests per day for free (the MA program charges $6 a pop). I am quickly becoming of the opinion that the first round should be CV and cover letter only (quick, straightforward), with a later round asking for more information. That way, when 160 people get rejected for the post, they don’t feel that they’ve lost a few days and $20.

  10. I’m really making an effort to look at this from the search committee’s point of view here, and the best thing I can come up with is that having all the materials from everyone allows them to set their own pace of deliberation as flexibly as possible — too many steps leads to too many possible mix-ups, etc.

    This of course massively privileges their own internal concerns over that of anyone else (not only the applicants themselves, but the various registrars and, above all, the recommenders). But it’s a buyer’s market, and they’ll get over a hundred applications no matter how unreasonable the up-front requirements are.

  11. Well, I guess I was thinking about an institute that paid its researchers, and did so for their entire career. Don’t get me wrong, the blog is great. But unless I am mistaken it’s not paying your rent.

  12. I find the idea of a leftist sugar-parent to be both attractive and very very unlikely – are there any historical examples? (I supoose Frankfurt school relied on some, but I can’t think of names) What you really need is your very own Nadezhda von Meck (note this “von”), Tchaikovsky’s mysterious benefactor.

  13. i had the idea that “evidence of teaching effectiveness” meant precisely a summary of the student evaluations. is that not the understanding the rest of you have?

  14. Adam: Ah, I see. Yes, it’s true. Thanks for shitting on my utopian dream…

    Mikhail: I can only think of George Soros. He funds the Center for American Progress and lots of other left-of-center organizations. Surely someone else besides us poor students would see potential for a philosophy/theology thinktank on the left.
    Yes, Mikhail, what we need is to locate some new von Mecks.

  15. ab, I honestly have no idea. I should probably ask. What do you mean by a summary? Because my understanding of the advice I got was that I shouldn’t send the literal copies that the students wrote — not that I shouldn’t refer to them.

  16. “evidence of teaching effectiveness” is not student comments, but, if the candidate is asked to supply it with the application (something I wonder about, see below), perhaps some quantitative measure would be ok to supply, usually a comparison of your cumulative course rating (3.2, say, out of 4 four) in relation to other courses at your institution in a similar category (lecture, for example). Some institutions place all instructors getting a certain cumulative rating on a list of excellent teachers, so one could then say “Ranked on the Excellent Teacher list for fall, 2010″. But it seems to me more typical for a job description to say: Candidates will be expected to demonstrate teaching effectiveness, etc.” And that means that, if you are lucky enough to get a fly out interview, you will be placed in front of a classroom. It is appropriate to speak about one’s teaching philosophy in a cover letter, but I think that actually referring to one’s quantitative scores in class evaluations is almost always not desirable and perhaps even counterproductive. And summarizing written evaluations is certainly not something a search committee wants a candidate to do, or would take seriously if she did.

  17. the best advice i was given for funding/job applications was to think of it as a way to review what you’ve done & how you’d like to move forward — as an opportunity to reflect, as you have already said.

    the trouble with this is the more i do that the more invested i become into wanting whatever it is i am applying for. and then am usually disappointed.

  18. What I was thinking for teaching effectiveness was to send them a couple sample syllabi and maybe a teaching philosophy write-up (I’ll have one on-hand anyway for schools that explicitly ask for that) — though my normal cover letter goes over the latter as well.

  19. what i have done is a summary of student responses for each class. i do a quantative summary and a qualitative one. so, i have a page for each class’s qualitative responses. since there are 5 questions in which students give a numerical response, i give the percentage of the class that rated me 5, 4, 3, etc. (it’s nice when you department automatically gives you this summary, and a pain when i’ve gone through and done it myself). in addition, i have a page in which i pick the best quotes (yes, that’s not representative, but they know that. however, i’ve gotten conflicting advice on that). i keep it to about 7 quotes.

    the impression i’ve recieved is that “teaching effectiveness” is just a euphemism for student evaluation scores, and that is the main thing they want. but i also include sample syllabi and a statement on my teaching–the latter only if they ask, though, b/c it seems like b.s. anyway.

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