The labor of academic job applications

The Passion of Creation
Leonid Osipovich Pasternak – 1892

In the past few years, I realized that one of my guilt-bundles comprises the guilt that I am not participating in the madness of job application season to the requisite level.

Why, you ask? Why wouldn’t you apply for the few academic jobs available?

Here’s why: because of the emotional labor of academic job applications. (Thank you for writing this, Andrea Eidinger.)

I hate to admit this to myself, but I actively avoid job applications. I still do them, but the very thought of going through the creation of a serious, customized document (many hours and days of work that really ought to be paid) renders me a huge lump of emotional garbage. 

The cover letter asks me to define myself. Redefine myself. Explain myself. Who am I? What have I been for the past decade? How have I re-invented myself, time after time, in the throes of the horrors of the job market? How have I turned academic tricks simply to remain relevant? How have I performed whatever acts needed, changing, morphing into whatever I was required to become? How have I plastered new posters over my identity billboards? How have I sold out everything I worked to become in the past? Really? I’m supposed to say all that, and then face myself in the mirror, rather than let the earth devour me?

Then you want a resume, or a curriculum vitae, customized to the length your committee desires. Because you want hundreds of us to commit hundreds of hours but you don’t even want to read, skim, or scan through my glorious fourteen page c.v.? Do you realize how many ways there are to organize a c.v.? Do you realize how much detail of font, size, paragraphing, and punctuation is required? You want me to re-do all that?

I get it. You’re on a committee. You want to reduce the work hours you spend. But you expect all of us – who are unpaid, unemployed – to spend those work hours? Just to prove we can perform as workaholics?

And then you want a separate document that says something about how I do diversity. How about just read my cover letter, which you barely skim through anyway?

In this market, it no longer makes sense to demand that hundreds of applicants perform hundreds of work hours to produce trash for the employer’s waste basket simply to make the first cut. The first step should be a simple industry standard of a short cover letter, a former reference letter, and a c.v. 

Yes, a former reference letter. Don’t overwork our referees. Please. We go through many seasons of job applications. We need that goodwill. Why would you destroy it? We’re academics: one of the few things we have is our networks and colleagues.

The process of job applications dredges up the depressive memories of dozens of previous job applications over the past decade. The dreams, the excitement, the potential, the promise, – it’s an enormous emotional investment. What will this teaching be like? What are the curricula? The majors? The departments? The new town? The cultural life? The institutional service? The colleagues? Their research agendas? It’s like preparing to get married. You have to imagine an entire life in an entire universe for it to work. You have to imagine being a whole person in that universe. 

Infographic-DossierWhile imagining several other universes (because you can’t just do one job application).

And then, just like that, the universe collapses around your head. And you’re supposed to pick yourself up, say thank you for not (reading) my materials and thank you for replying (with a form letter) (eventually, after I begged for a response).

Many potential employers don’t even bother to acknowledge your application. (Too much work, I’m guessing). At times, you end up in toxic and insulting exchanges with potential employers (professors who advocate social and educational justice are no exception at all), poor planning and communication by their administrative staff and committee chairs (while demanding that applicants perform, like circus animals, to perfection).

May I suggest sharing the workload?

In fact, perhaps employers could also be required to do some work, proportional to the labor job applicants perform? Here are some possible tasks that employers could do, prior to soliciting job applications: 

  1. Write a 10 page essay on the toxic dysfunction in the department (with a convenient bulleted list as Table of Contents). Perhaps at least 30% of your applicants might save themselves the bother of applying when they discover that 60% of the department don’t actually speak to each other, and 90% of them take turns shunning each other. Maybe this way, new employees know better how to survive.  
  2.  Provide a list of all the different roles all the different department members are expecting the new hire to play (with footnotes and details of all the tasks). This would help her prepare to politically and strategically dodge, bow, and scrape her way through the first 6 years until she gets tenured or (used up and) dumped. Or perhaps this way she knows in advance that she can have no semblance of a life once she lands in her office, and she can weigh the pros and cons of not having a baby versus having your shit academic position. Maybe 20% of your applicants would swipe left when they discover that Full-Professor doesn’t do anything ever, and that he doesn’t even recognize his doctoral student on the day of the defense (True story, guys. And he’s still flying high, using the labor of Fresh Academic Blood on a year-to-year basis). 
  3. Compose a historical narrative of all the passive-aggressive encounters in every department meeting, with warning signs on which professors and administrators to watch out for, vis-a-vis plotting together or with students. Provide a list of persons who must be avoided in the hallways at all costs, as they will try to drag you into their ongoing badal vendettas with the other tenured faculty.
  4. Along with a clear chart of all department faculty, provide notes as to which one is a only in the job because of his fundraising abilities (his former sports fans donate money to him for the department), and which faculty is there because she is a Collegial-Thug on behalf of FullProfessor (see above), so he can’t legally be traced as the source of Thuggery. (More true stories). This way, the new hire knows and can never be disillusioned about FullProfessor or Collegial-Thug, and can simply fake-smile his way through to tenure.
  5. Provide a organizational chart, showing which graduate students are really just going to get their Ph.D.’s in return for politicking on behalf of which faculty. For instance, Insecure-But-Tenured Faculty Member who is always looking for dirt on everyone else via graduate students. That way New Hire can avoid crossing Graduate-Student-For-Hire, or can avoid pissing off Insecure-But-Tenured by inadvertently applying plagiarism regulations to said Grad Student.

By providing a bank of such documents, academic departments can cut back on their hiring workload by simply weeding out any potential applicants who don’t have the stomach for skullduggery. Perhaps any real human beings, seeing the writing on the wall, can just tell you to shove your academic appointment up your own a***s. Perhaps such applicants can save their labor, and look for a position where they might work with actual human beings.


Aging immigrant at a desi restaurant

me devonSomething came upon me today. After I’d had my usual breakfast, watched my usual TV, cleaned up and did the dishes as usual, I felt a great restlessness come upon me. It was as if I’d been replicating the same groundhog day over and over and over for ever. If I remained in this cycle, I would disappear, dissolve, and cease to be.

I tried to persuade another person “Let’s do something different,” and I failed. In a great sulk, I stuffed my bag (my usual laptop and my usual lunch of a banana), and got in my car and started driving. Where was I going? I wasn’t sure. I just knew that I was trapped in a cage, and I didn’t know how to get out. I drove south, then east, then toward the library – no, not the library, I always go to the library – then to Trader Joe’s – no, I will not go grocery shopping; I will not make myself useful, I will not be sensible. I am sick of being sensible. I feel like a pressure cooker. I have been good, and restrained, and moderately pious for so long. I am like a shriveled turnip.

I don’t even know who I am and what I like. I just know what I don’t do. I know what I refrain from. I know who I’m not. I’m so used to telling myself no, I don’t even know what I want anymore. My heart has stopped telling me.

I ended up on Devon Avenue. Parked, paid, and walked up the street. The wind was bitingly cold. In my sulk, I hadn’t brought a scarf or thick gloves. I popped into all the expensive-ish clothing stores that I never visit when I’m with my husband and my daughter. They have no interest in the clothes. They are always impatient to leave. Why do I do everything with them? I will buy something outrageously expensive, I tell myself. Then I check the prices and restrain myself. Again. Off I go.

I stop at a desi restaurant and order lamb chops. I never get lamb chops. They are delicious and tender and I eat them all, alone, watching people hop on and off the bus outside. There’s a woman talking on the phone near me, in English, with a slight accent. I used to have an accent. I think. I used to be out of place. When did that stop happening? When did I start stumbling over Urdu? My friends who are immigrants don’t do that. Maybe because I married an American and not a Pakistani.

Years ago, when I was visiting Pakistan from the UK, and was scheduled to fly out the next day, my mother told me my father had been crying during the night: meri kuri bahr li hogayi eh (my daughter has become a foreigner, an exile, an outsider). I now understand, and I see why crying, grieving is the thing to do.

I eat my lamb chops and pakoras while I read the local Urdu paper. I watch the people outsider. An older Pakistani woman gets off the bus, in her thin shalwar kameez and a coat and plastic shoes that are out of place here and wrong for the weather. Maybe she’s not “older.” Maybe she’s my age, aged by work and struggle. She’s pushing one of those personal grocery carts. I could be her, I think, married in my teens, and by now thinking of my grandchildren, worrying about the relatives I must sponsor to the US. I could be thinking everyday thoughts, how to get through the day, where to get the cheapest tomatoes and how to wheedle some money out of my husband.

Instead I sit here, indulging in an existential sulk.

I feel incomplete, eating the lamb chops. My kid loves lamb chops. I text my husband to say I’m in Devon. He says they are heading over to join me now. I think I’m happy about this. I’m not sure.

The shopkeeper makes friendly conversation with me. They don’t usually, when my husband is with me. Or maybe it’s just him. He jokingly calls me Shabana Azmi. When I’m done eating, he calls out to me by name, asking how the chops were. I tell him they were excellent, and head out.

Then I head over to another desi fast food restaurant and order some biryani to go. Here the clientele aren’t speaking English. Clusters of working men speaking Urdu and other  South Asian languages I don’t recognize. I order and wait. Guys look at me with harmless curiosity. I don’t fit, they think. I sit, and I think I fit just fine. In fact, I can already feel myself aging.

Some years from now, maybe I will sit here a lot oftener. Some young woman will look at me and feel grateful that she is not me. I will sit here like the old men sitting at a corner table, talking – not about Trump or Rauner or global warming or dinosaur fossils, but something else, something not those things.

As I sit longer, alone, I feel a whisper of wind that takes me, little by little, back to a previous life. Me, sitting in an Islamabad restaurant, eating with other niqabis. Haggling with a shopkeeper. Nagging the hostel maids to cook better food. I really am having an existential moment. I am a stranger to myself. When I think of my life in English with my White husband and my half-White child, I feel like it’s a life in a lab, like The Truman Show, unreal, made-up. The stage props will melt away suddenly, and I’ll be revealed as that woman in her plastic shoes, planning a bhindi dinner, worried about how my kameez looks and what my mother-in-law thinks of me. I feel like I almost don’t want my husband and daughter to show up right now, so that real me can come back. Which real me?

The Gilded Cage, by Evelyn De MorganMaybe I will sit here, oftener, waiting for my shell to crack and fall off, so all my Urdu grammar and my head-bobble will come back to me. I will sit here and talk to the restaurant owner – except he keeps trying to chat me up in English, because he can tell what I am – what I am now. I want to say, no, I want to shed that persona right now. I want to return to my home self, but I don’t have the option. When I see my daughter’s face, red and raw with cold, appear in the door, I have to drop anchor quickly. I can’t go back. It’s not an option. Now I can’t speak Urdu anymore. This world of English comes slamming down upon my head. I am a princess in a gilded cage again.