In Which the Prof is Reminded of His Good Fortune

This morning, I spent my office hours being grateful that we don’t always get what we deserve. You see, Mondoville is hiring a new English prof — specifically a 19th/20th (and now, I suppose, 21st)-century Brit Lit specialist. I’m on the hiring committee, and I began wading through the letters and c.v.’s today. Actually, fording may be a better word — with 101 applicants, the pool’s a bit deep for wading. After about half an hour, I began to think I would be doing the profession and my students a service by resigning my post, thereby creating another vacancy and allowing two of these applicants to have jobs. And I hadn’t even made it through the B’s yet. (Of course, matters of mortgage payments, groceries, and other niceties will keep me from taking such drastic action — besides, I’d have to change the name of the blog.)

As I look at the various applicants, all of whom strike me as more accomplished coming out of grad school than I am almost a decade into my career, I ache for the talented people who will likely never get a tenure-track position, even at a school like Mondoville, and for the students who will miss the opportunity to learn from these gifted people without ever even knowing the chance has been lost. At the same time, however, I see applicants who don’t seem to have considered who we are, and what we do. I see applicants who make me think that they see us as something to be settled for — a place to while away the exile from the research-intensive university setting.

I see plenty of hard-charging scholars, but little interest in building excitement in students. I see graduates of intensely competitive programs — but no evidence that they are concerned with our mission, or even that they understand who our students are or the challenges and opportunities they present.

And as I look at all this, I want to tell them that we’re a good place — flawed, yes, but still a place with joys and passions even beyond those of living in the world of literature and ideas. But too many of these applicants seem to pine after what we aren’t, rather than expressing interest in making us better at what we are.

I think one of the things that has served me in my career at Mondoville is that I knew I could be content to be a Mr. Chips — well, a  Dr. Chips, but you know what I mean. I don’t see enough of that in the applications I’m reading, even from all these smart, gifted people. But I have a career — and a life — here in Mondoville, and it’s really what I wanted to have when I got back into the education racket.  Maybe it is what I’ve deserved; I worked to earn it, and I built myself in a way to suit this kind of school.

All the same, as I look at the applications, I find myself turning to one of my favorite wishes, impossible though I know it to be. To each of them, I wish, “May you get everything you want… and may it still be what you want when you get it.”

But now I need to finish the B’s.

 

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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18 Responses to In Which the Prof is Reminded of His Good Fortune

  1. Alpheus says:

    To play devil’s advocate: how would an applicant demonstrate an interest in building excitement among students, or an understanding of the particular students at Mondoville? It’s really quite hard to know a place before you get there, and in my experience every college has a somewhat unique culture that I wouldn’t presume to understand without having experienced it.

    I also think it’s not so easy to show hiring committees that one is committed to good teaching generally: the real love for one’s students and subject that emerges in the classroom doesn’t necessary translate well into self-promoting words. Ask job candidates “which of you shall we say doth love his students best?” and you’re liable to pick Goneril over Cordelia.

    • profmondo says:

      Fair point, but OTOH, it isn’t that hard to look at our website, or to talk about your teaching as well as your research, or to mention teaching awards (which some candidates have done). Even back in 2003, I was able to look at schools I didn’t know about, to try to imagine how I might fit there, and such. (In fact, I may have been too able to do that — it used to drive Mrs. M crazy when I’d start talking about the bookstores, activities, and such for each of the pins on my application map in my study.)

      • The Ancient says:

        You’re looking for the sort of people who would rather be professors at Reed (say) than some Ivy School. People who would rather spend their days teaching in small seminars than writing books and giving the occasional large lecture. People who aren’t *primarily* interested in their own ongoing scholarship. People who don’t want to leave the education of their students to teaching assistants. And on top of all that, people who will be happy in Mondoville, with the students it attracts. Is that right?

        Do the college ever reach out to specific individuals at other schools, or is it always a matter of people responding to a published notice?

      • profmondo says:

        Yeah, you’ve about got it on the first part. In my experience, we’ve never raided anyplace else — part of that is that our pay scale is in the squat to squat-fifty range (says the tenured Assoc. Prof in English with a 4/4 load, 50% comp, who makes $42K). In that regard, I think there has historically been a tendency to think of ourselves as an entry-level gig — the kind of place that folks try to “write their way out of”. Perhaps we need a boost in self-esteem ourselves.

  2. Jerome says:

    When did you start talking about yourself in the third person?

  3. Flavia says:

    In a job letter, I’ll allow that a candidate is probably applying to dozens of jobs and may not have the time to personalize his self-presentation much (when I was on the market, I tweaked my teaching paragraphs depending on what kind of institution I was applying to, and once in a while, when it was relevant, I’d add something about having grown up in the area, or being familiar with the Jesuit education model, or whatever, but that was the extent of it).

    I’m much less forgiving during an on-campus interview, when the candidate really should have looked at the structure of our major, the basic stats on our student body, and the faculty CVs. We have a somewhat unusual job talk format that isn’t actually DIFFICULT (talk for 20 min about your research, 20 min about your teaching, and take questions for 20 min), and yet I’ve seen candidates screw it up in all kinds of dramatic ways that boil down to not having any sense of the basics of our department.

  4. J. Otto Pohl says:

    In my own personal experience I think the emphasis on teaching for entry level job applications at universities is beyond stupid. Teaching is quite easy, so easy they do not in fact teach you how to do it at all in graduate school. The entire PhD program is geared towards research and writing. But, requiring teaching experience is a very good way to prevent otherwise qualified people from getting jobs for ideological reasons. Take the person with the most publications and leave it at that.

    • profmondo says:

      Otto, are you distinguishing Universities from Small, Lib Arts Colleges (SLACs) (or Mondovillian reasonable facsimiles)? The gigs are different — which is sort of my point. Also, I would suggest that in many cases, publications and presentations tend to be ideological signaling devices as well. As for me, I think I do more good in the classroom than I would do as a producer of scholarly articles — indeed, the scholarly work I do each year is bibliographic in nature; not argumentative or original, but perhaps useful. In fact, I sometimes think that even with about 200 hits a day, this blog puts my ideas into the world more effectively than most scholarly articles.

      As it happens, Mondoville’s English Department is rather ideologically diverse (3 on the left, 2 on the right, and the guy who just split was conservative as well). We might all like to be more involved in research scholarship (or in one case, creative work), but we have neither the facilities nor the funding to support it. Further, we have high expectations for both teaching and service loads. We’re more about the transfer of knowledge and culture than its production. A hard-core researcher might very well be frustrated and miserable here.

      Thanks for dropping by!

  5. J. Otto Pohl says:

    I am making no distinctions. You can hire anybody you want. But, the only way to make a pretense of an objective merit based hiring I can see is just to do it on the raw number of publications. Your tenure is not going anywhere. Given the huge number of applicants this would make hiring easier as well. I was blacklisted from even getting an interview in the US even for adjunct positions at fourth tier institutions because I had no teaching experience despite a fairly good publishing record. Since you can not get teaching experience without teaching such a situation effectively bans people like myself from ever working in the US. Something I am sure most left wing academics are thrilled about. But, I see no merit in such a system.

  6. ricki says:

    I’d disagree with the assertion that teaching is “easy.” I’m 12 or so years into my career and I finally feel like I’ve hit my stride and learned what it takes to be a ‘good’ teacher for our student population. (I’ve also learned how much I love teaching, and miss it when I’m away from it). I’ve had the good fortune of students telling me how I either got them interested in a particular field of science, or how I provided them encouragement to keep going (I think of one non-traditional student in particular). Teaching well is an art and I think it is something you have to develop, even though I taught for years in grad school as a TA and even earned awards for it, being a prof is very different.

    Hiring decisions are going to depend a lot on the school. Our campus is primarily a teaching institution so while research is valuable, we’d look for someone with a strong teaching background – or who had at least served as a TA.

    (We actually had an issue recently of having to let someone go who had a good research record, but in the classroom…well, they just didn’t mesh well with the student body. There was at least one blow-up over “You people are just not prepared for college and you do not belong here!” Uh, we are not Harvard….)

    • J. Otto Pohl says:

      I have found teaching to be very easy. Maybe it is just American students that are hard to teach? Look if teaching was hard then they would teach you how to do it in graduate school. They do not because the fact is that standing in front of a bunch of people explaining the origins of the Cold War and answering questions is just about the easiest gig in the world. You can learn it on the job on the first day. It is a lot easier than making lattes.

      What I did find in the US was that they gave jobs to people with fewer publications and even people who were just ABD based solely on having been a TA. Many of them coming from either inside the program or being hired from the same university to post-doc to assistant professorship line every time. If teaching is what the focus of higher education is supposed to be in the US then they should just be honest and admit that publications count for nothing and that they are only looking for teaching experience. They also should stop having people write PhD dissertations and instead spend all their time practicing teaching.

      I do not know here you work. But, I make a point never to underestimate the capabilities of my students. There is no reason that University of Ghana should not be on the same level as Harvard. It is just a matter of the students applying themselves. Statistically as the flagship university of a country of 23 million people we have the same size pool of people to draw from as the University of California.

      • profmondo says:

        I can’t speak to your experience, Otto. However, during my one serious run at the market — and remember, I was coming from Ball State U (which no one mistakes for the Sorbonne, reputationally — and I’m the only Ph.D. medievalist the school has produced. Ever.), with a dissertation that was coming from a decidedly unfashionable perspective (I’ve been called “the last of the New Critics” by some, although I consider myself a Frygean), I had four campus interviews and three offers (I later learned that the position I lost was indeed because they saw my research approach as being old-school/unhip.) None of the three schools that wanted me were terribly concerned about my research plans. All three were schools that are focused primarily (and in two cases, exclusively) on undergrad education. What they wanted to know was how I worked in the classroom, so instead of the research-focused “job talk”, I was asked to teach classes (or to teach mock classes) — in my case, on a topic (King Lear) outside my dissertation area. Schools like Mondoville are hiring generalists in many respects.

        Yeah, we care about your research, but really, only insofar as it demonstrates that you’re intellectually alive. If you work at Mondoville, you may present at a conference or two a year (or make an annual contribution to the Chaucer bibliography), and we’ll actually be more excited if you got some of your kids to present at an undergrad conference. What we want to know is how you approach a composition class — in my case, a lot of workshopping and one-on-one interaction. We want to know if you can deliver a talk on Lear or In Memoriam A.H.H. that will keep kids away from their facebook pages. We want to know if you’ll show up at plays, recitals, and ball games — to be part of our community beyond the classroom. We want to know if you’re willing to serve on innumerable committees and go to meeting after meeting; we want to know if you’re willing to advise students and help them figure out what they want to do with their lives. If you find this stuff to be a distraction or a nuisance, then Mondoville is going to be a miserable gig for you, and you’ll also probably make your students and colleagues miserable. We’re not really in the knowledge production business — although we’ll be happy if you can do some of that in your spare time. We’re transmitters and mentors and folks who eat in the cafeteria at the same table as the students.

        I don’t know if that matches your idea of what the professoriate is about, but it’s what our professoriate is about, here and at lots of other Mondovilles. And if the only thing that drives an applicant is his or her research, we have to wonder if that applicant is really interested in our gig.

  7. dave schutz says:

    Megan Mac said: “tenured academics has worked a great scam. They’ve managed to monetize
    peoples’ affection for regional football teams, and their desire for a work credential, and then somehow diverted that money into paying academics to work on whatever they want, for the rest of their lives, without any oversight by the football fans or the employers. While I’m sensitive to the complaints of conservative critics, I think that by and large, it’s a very good thing. But it’s not a viable business model in cyberspace.”

  8. arethusa says:

    “Teaching is quite easy, so easy they do not in fact teach you how to do it at all in graduate school.”

    Respectfully disagree, JOP, and agree with ricki. Just teaching, in terms of spouting facts before a classroom, is easy, sure, provided you have no fear of public speaking; teaching effectively is not at all easy. There is a difference. I do agree with you that “teaching experience” is not necessarily the qualification it’s thought to be; there are job candidates who have taught every conceivable course you could ever want, but that does not mean they are good teachers. The argument that they don’t teach you how to teach in graduate school – well, they SHOULD, since that is an important part of how academics make their living and get tenure, even at research schools.

    However, the same criticism applies to your suggested criterion of hiring the person with the most publications. Just because there are a number of publications doesn’t mean they’re any good, that the rate of publication will continue, that this person would be a good colleague…etc.

    I’ve taught almost every conceivable course under the sun in my field and I’ve published quite a bit; learning to do the former well was much harder than learning to do the latter well.

    • J. Otto Pohl says:

      The problem is that if you are not a TA at UNM, but do a PhD at SOAS in London you are banned on the basis of ‘no teaching experience’ from ever teaching in the US and there is no way around it. This is especially galling when all of the propaganda suggests that publishing not teaching is what universities consider important. It proved not to be true at all in my case. On the other hand you don’t need any special credentials to get published. It is possible to do that without having the right ‘pedigree.’ So it at least has a pretense of objectivity and being merit basis.

      To be honest I would tell anybody doing a PhD in history today to forget about trying to get a job in the US. I am quite sure all of the selections are fixed that is they know who they want to pick and tell him to apply and then put out the application call to comply with the law. Nobody other than the pre-selected person has a chance.

      • Huck says:

        You seem to have been told a yarn about the unimportance of teaching at universities in the US. “All of the propaganda” that I’ve seen never diminishes the importance of teaching, which is always one leg of the three-legged animal that gets one tenure, even at reasearch institutions: teaching, research, and service.

        And many, many schools, as ProfMondo has noted, place a premium on teaching and service over research.

        It seems to me that what you need to do is to stop complaining about what criteria US universities and colleges use in their hiring process, and instead write a nice letter to your doctoral program in the UK explaining that if they want their graduates to be competitive in the US market, they better start offering teaching opportunities for their graduate students in addition to demanding a rigorous research program and impressive publication record. One does not have to be sacrificed at the expense of the other when it comes to graduate education and training. And the fact is that the more competitive the job market gets in the US, the more we are seeing (and, yes, I “teach” at a Research 1 University in the US and have been on a number of faculty search committees) applicants who are accomplished researchers with an impressive publication record AND excellent teaching skills.

  9. Pingback: More Thoughts on Hiring | Professor Mondo

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