...or "Why I have been blog-absent so long, Part the Second"
So, you may have heard that the United States, and most of the rest of the world, is experiencing something of an economic downturn of late. There have been a few news stories about it. You may not know, however, that academia, as an industry, has been hit hard. It doesn't compete for grimness to the auto industry, but it is pretty dire.
This is a particularly grim turn because academia has always been an almost delusional job choice for anyone seeking to secure a future income or, you know, pay this month's rent. For many years it has been understood that if you get a job that is a good fit, you take it, regardless of where it might take you in the world. Scholars who have geographic restrictions (or other sorts of limiting standards) on where they will work, often for excellent reasons like a partner's career, children's needs, elderly relatives, etc., are most often the people who end up leaving academia for another career.
For years you have heard people say that if they had known what the prospects were for employment, they never would have applied to graduate school. Graduate programs churn out candidates yearly at a rate that is exponentially greater than the number of jobs those same schools have been been able to provide for these candidates. Salaries for the few jobs that exist are minute compared to the amount of educational debt graduates have amassed getting them. There is a steady shift away from tenure-track jobs (that is, jobs that offer you the opportunity to achieve job security after 6-8 years of unimaginably frantic activity) to "casualized labor" (part-time and visiting jobs, with no guarantee that your contract will be renewed after 1-3 years). And graduate programs have ever less scholarship and fellowship money to ease their students through the 5-10 years it takes to acquire a Ph.D.
In part because of this, conferences and other academic get-togethers have had an increasingly feral atmosphere about them, as everyone struggles to acquire the few jobs and opportunities for professional accomplishment that are available. Tenured faculty are vocally worried about what will become of their students, and express their concern both for an industry that is adapting poorly to new economic realities and for the young scholars to whom they are emotionally attached. They advise their graduate charges to take as long as possible finishing their dissertation, because (in funded programs) the $20,000 a year and benefits you get for teaching as a graduate student is better than the unemployment waiting for you as a doctor.
Young scholars put off having children indefinitely because they don't want it to interfere with the completion of the dissertation, the job search, or the tenure track. In the sciences, I have heard that it is impossible to get a post-doc (a stage between graduate school and professorial employment that is essential in many fields) if you are visibly pregnant. No one wants to hire someone who will immediately go on maternity leave. In my own (humanities) field, I recently heard of a major program which rescinded a graduate student's funding when she became pregnant, and then made the department too hostile an environment for her to stay in school.
And let's be clear: no one (except me and other doe-like 21-year-old graduate school applicants who imagined the academic life was about the love of learning and intellectual exchange) ever thought that the academic life was anything but solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. But now that the public schools (always at war with their state legislatures over funding) are in mortal peril of financial collapse, the private schools have seen their endowments halved, and hiring freezes and salary cuts are the norm, all the flaws of the profession have been intensified.
I have been on the job market the last two years, in English Literature and Drama, and it was both brutal and strangely buoying. After all, when you go on job visits, everyone is unprecedentedly enthusiastic about your work, work which has otherwise been done in increasingly wacky solitude. And going through the questionings of the job interview process helped clarify my ideas immensely, facilitating a much faster completion of my dissertation than would otherwise have been possible.
But the vast majority of it (like the audition process for a performer) was about managing rejection. After all, a single job advertisement, even in a highly specialized field, will receive between 150 and 750 applications, and there are a million different reasons you could be weeded out at any step of the process, ranging from "I work on a subject that arouses a particular irritation in a member of the search committee because of a childhood trauma" or "Someone in the department is engaged in a longstanding intellectual war with my feudal overlord, er, academic advisor" to "The committee doesn't think I'd actually take the job, and they don't want to waste their time on me just to be rejected at the last moment."
In fact, in my second year on the job market (after coming in second place for a bevy of jobs I had become emotionally attached to), I became convinced that my situation was no different from that of a woman on the marriage mart in a 19th century novel. I began to use phrases like "old maid" while I did economic analyses of how being "stale" affected my desirability on the market. I conceived of my academic mentor (a great adviser who invests a lot of his sense of self in seeing his students well employed and intellectually productive in the field - he has a perfect placement record so far) as a sort of Mr. (or, worse, Mrs.) Bennet, overwhelmed with an overabundance of daughters, and desperate about how he would finally get me (the eldest) safely married off before I ruined his statistics and cast the others into doubt.
My parents and non-academic friends laughed. My friends from graduate school sighed. I began to feel like my novel's ending was going to be less Jane Austen and more Edith Wharton.
And then, late in the season: a miracle job, in Canada, exactly in my field, with a very reasonable teaching load and a very reputable salary and benefits package. Praise the job market gods.
I hadn't heard from this school in a long time, which is why I thought I hadn't gotten the job. It had been a particularly nasty winter, and in fact every job visit I went on last year was disrupted by a blizzard. My flights kept getting canceled because of snow, which meant that I had to call the department chairs and have them rearrange and greatly accelerate the pace of my visits around my new, later arrival time. For this job visit to Nova Scotia, my early morning flight out of La Guardia was canceled amidst the snow, so I was put on another flight out of JFK late that night. I made my way across town to the other airport by bus, and then settled in for the long day's wait, a little uncomfortable with the fact that I had gotten very little sleep the night before, and would have little opportunity for more between arriving at the hotel in Halifax, NS and the start of interview activities the next day. As I pondered this, I looked up at the airport televisions. They showed an airplane sinking into the Hudson. This was the very day that "Sully" Sullenberger and Jeffrey Skiles so deftly avoided disaster after their flight from La Guardia was disturbed by bird hits. But all any of us could see on the muted television screens was that a plane had gone down in New York, none too far from where we were about to get on our own flights.
At any rate, I made my exhausted way through the job visit, and enjoyed everyone I met and what little I saw of the school and the city. Everyone kept telling me that this was the coldest day they could ever remember. It felt cold, but not brutally so. Perhaps I was expecting even more extreme cold from Canada. I came home, sent off a thank you note, went about another job visit, waited for the replies. And didn't hear anything for a long time. The other job regretfully took another candidate, although they very kindly assured me that they had also wanted to hire me and were sure I had a great career ahead of me. (See how easy it is to map the emotional experience of the academic job search onto every single breakup or romantic humiliation you have ever had?) And then I began to accustom myself to the idea of being on the job market a third year in a row. D tried to convince me to come to LA, where we could live off his income while I wrote and published and reapplied for jobs. He proposed that this was a win-win situation: either I got a job, or we got to be together, geographically, after 7 years of career-imposed long distance. But I knew that if I wasn't actively working as a teacher, at a university, then that would be the end of my academic career.
I got the job offer when I was on the train, heading for JFK again, ready to get on a plane to LA to visit Dan and strategize the next year. My department, which everyone, despite my skepticism, had always believed was prestigious enough to guarantee me a job, had ten or twelve people on the market last year. Really brilliant people. Among all of us, we received three tenure-track job offers. The previous year, a single candidate from my department had received three similar job offers, by herself.
I prepared myself for emigration. It was one of the major ironies of last year that, after years of listening to partisan assertions from those who share my politics that they would move to Canada if a Republican was (re)elected, no sooner had I helped to elect Obama, then I moved to Canada. This irony was brought home to me with special force when I recalled that I had come home from my job visit to Nova Scotia and immediately attended the Inaugural Concert with my mother. (I had to work in Connecticut on the day of the actual Inauguration, alas.)
At any rate, D and I whisked ourselves off for a long road trip to my new home at the start of the summer. I have many a picture I would like to upload to show you how stunningly well suited my new home is to a girl who has always lived in a mental world that most closely resembles a gothic novel, but the new Blogger interface is rebuffing my attempts to post pictures. Does anyone have any advice to impart about this?
We wove our way along the Atlantic coast of New England, pausing to visit with our friends in Providence and attend my best friend's med school graduation in Boston. Who would have guessed when we met in 5th grade that two decades later we would both be doctors? This fills me with a strange satisfaction.
In Maine we stopped to purchase exquisitely cheap outdoorsy gear, which would serve us well in the densely misty Maritime summer. We ate "Moose Droppings" (malted milk balls) and Fresh Blueberry ice cream in Bar Harbor, but were too chicken to try the signature flavor, Lobster. We did, however, eat lobster in virtually every other form it can be found in Maine and Atlantic Canada. In the visitor centre in Acadia National Park, we ran into people we had known since our college days at UNC, people who had moved to Connecticut at exactly the same time that I did. Small world.
It got smaller. Our first stop across the border was in St. Andrews by the Sea, New Brunswick, a Loyalist bastion turned seaside resort that now has the odd feel of a ghost town, although at least one of its resorts is still functioning. We were surprised to find that the War of 1812 still felt very current there - a fair number of (ancient) cannon are pointed at their southern neighbors even now, just in case the rebellious states get any aggressive ideas. While we visited the historic Blockhouse, where troops stood sentry in times of war, I noticed a docent emerging from a car that sported a bumper sticker from my new employer. I asked her about it, and it emerged that it was her fellow docent who attended my school. Further questioning on both sides revealed that he was getting his Honors degree in English literature, and that he was the head of the school's Drama Society. Less than 24 hours in one of the largest countries on earth and I meet the most relevant student at my new institution, which, I have to note, is in a totally different province.
We drove through the Fundy Coast of New Brunswick, site of some of the most extreme tides in the world, and then down through Nova Scotia to Halifax, my new home, an odd hipster fishing port. We loved the first house we looked at, and rented it immediately before heading north again to Prince Edward Island, land of Green Gables.
Emigrating was a long and slightly irritating process (despite the extreme helpfulness of officials on both sides of the border), one which I have the feeling I haven't fully completed yet. I only just filled out my national health paperwork a few weeks ago, after the fifth morning I woke up and heard about swine flu on the clock radio's news.
Suffice it to say I am loving everything about my new home - I hope to tell you more in a further post, but I will wind this one down, before it begins to assume Moby Dickish proportions.
Ah, it is so good to be back.
...or "Why I have been blog-absent so long, Part the Second"