Live Post from #NewFac12 National Summit in Washington, DC

Hi folks, I’m on the Social Media team for the New Faculty Majority which has put on the National Summit on Contingent Labor in Higher Ed today in Washington, DC, in conjunction with the AACU meetings.

8:19 AM:  I am going to be putting up thoughts on FB/Twitter, and some thoughts here as well.  This post will grow over the course of the day.  STay tuned.

8:15 Gary Rhoads the first speaker.  Causes of reliance on conting. labor?  Core part of new knowledge regime in US higher education, which constructs college/univ as corporate enterprise, and faculty as employees.

“Just in time” students matched by “just in time” faculty—less time on campus, piecing together an over-stressed schedule of work and study, distracted, under stress….

Irony:  poverty level wages to faculty who teach college—-the path/entry point to middle class status.  YES!

Contingency worst in the institutions that serve first gen and minority students….  reinforcing the class divide between the rich and the rest.

8:35 Claire Goldstene:  Henry Kissinger said that academic battles are so fierce because so little is at stake, but in fact, in this case, the stakes are high.

Academic freedom is at stake.  Academic freedom is tied to tenure.  The majority of faculty don’t have tenure.  Thus the majority of univ. faculty are not working under conditions of academic freedom.

Is the univ. about academic inquiry, or is it about lowering costs and increasing revenue/fundraising?

As Naomi Klein said in Shock Doctrine, the current economic “crisis” shields a range of adjustments in higher ed toward a corporatist logic above all else.  But the assault on tenure and the crisis of cont. labor is not the last few years!  It’s a decades long process.

Privatization of production of knowledge.

Universities under assault from the forces of neoliberalism that have a 40 year long history.  The loss of tenure and academic freedom diminish the chance that progressive ideas and resistance to neolib will come from the academy.

This is not a NEW crisis–it is a 40 year old history of an assault on progressive ideas as expressed through progressive thought in the university setting.

8:45:  Carol Schneider, President of Association of American Colleges and University.

Asks people in univ. leadership in audience to raise their hands…..  about 5 hands go up, in a room of 200.

“Not enough!”  The crisis on the ground that all of you as adjuncts understand intimately is not even seen as a crisis or seen at all by univ. leadership.  Absolutely true.  When I was dept head, the needs of adjuncts were not on my radar.

Q and A:  800 lb gorilla in living room is overproduction of Ph.D.s.  It is shameful that department after department tries to grow their Ph.D. programs without a thought to the existence of jobs for those Ph.D.s

Gary Rhoads response:  Right now colleges are in crisis trying to meet the skyrocketing demand for college ed.  The solution is not to dis-invest in faculty and staff, it’s greater investment.  Austerity budgets and cutting costs are not the solution; we need MORE full time faculty to meet the demand.  (applause)

Panel Two:  Promising Practices, Proposed Solutions

Adrianna Kezar:  I am on the tenure track but have been on my univ. committee at USC on contingent fac; I’m the only tenure-line faculty who has been, for the past decade.

Incredible lack of awareness!  On campus after campus, people tell me: “we have no contingent faculty.”  I have to call them out. (KK:  This is astounding to me, and yet not.  Anyone else hear the parallel with: “we have no homosexuals in our country.”)

Motivation to change is largely missing.  Recommendation made by one group in isolation; we don’t engage with multiple stakeholders.  This summit is exciting because engaging multiple stakeholders.

Leadership do not see connection between faculty and student learning.

Maria Maisto, President of NFM:  tells us the motivations of the conference to respond to the Presidents’ Climate Commitment for Colleges and Universities.  And tells the sad story of Doug Wright, a long-time adjunct who lost his job in a restucturing, lost his health insurance, got cancer, bankrupted himself paying his bills, and died.  Please read about him here:

Jack Longman:  British Columbia is a fine place to be an adjunct.  There is a single salary scale that covers both FT and PT/NTT faculty.  Seniority is the determining factor.  Americans have trouble grasping this.

Anne Wiegard, President, NFM Foundation:  My struggles with faculty unions constantly surprise me.  However, staff are our allies and need to be included.

Q and A:  Transparency is key here.  The constant refusal is :there’s no money.  In fact, there is plenty of money.  Taxpayers have a right to demand information about uses of their funds in the higher ed system.  And the information can be used to defend rights of NTT.  The role of salaries is NOT the main reason for the escalating college costs.

Panel 3:  Regulatory and Organizing Strategies.

Rich Moser: Senior Staff Rep, Rutgers AAUP-AFT

Coalition-building is key.  It builds a community of interest based on enlightened self-interest, while acknowledging the conflicts of interest that are real and alive in the room.

The inside/outside approach—insiders mobilize to get the outsider dissent legitimated and funded.

Joe Berry, labor historian and author Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts for Change.

I am giving some tough love:   Insiders may extend a hand of charity, but they don’t understand the needs of the disenfranchised.  The disempowered must agitate and mobilize, and there is work to be done to speak with the NTT about their fears.  Fear is the greatest obstacle.

The unexpressed fear is more powerful than the expressed fear, so get the fears out and on the table.  And ask them—how secure are you if we do nothing??!

>Lunch<  I get to chat with John Casy, Lee Bessette, and Brian Coxall!  Cool!

And I get to finally meet in person Scott Jaschik, Editor of Inside Higher Ed.!  He rocks.


Panel 4:  Changing the Culture

Heather Wathington, Western Interstate Commission of Higher Ed and UVA Asst Prof in Higher Ed.

The needs of reform to reach and improve college experience of first gen and most vulnerable students fall on shoulders of NTT faculty, who have the fewest resources to deal with them.

While the NTT faculty are very high quality, they lack resources such as consistent email and office space, continuity of access to their students to provide a connection after the class, they are hired last minute and may not be able to create the best courses, etc.

Changing the culture will require changing the micro-practices of the NTT hiring process.


Debra Leigh Scott:  Adjunct Professor and Independent Filmmaker and Artist

My job is more like a barista than a professor.  We are closer to server culture than academic culture.

I wrote a play about my daughter, who is a corporate lawyer and whose first year starting salary was 5 years of my best salary combined.

We discussed this, and she ultimately said to me, “you should have done something else.  You didn’t have to struggle like this.”

I said, “I trained for a decade to do this work.  It was meaningful to me.”

She said, “you dragged me along with you in your poverty.  I refuse to be so poor.  It’s why I chose the path I did.”

When the play was performed audience members came up afterward and asked if it was really true, how poor I was.  This kind of artistic intervention will change the culture.

At another dinner at my college, an adjunct and I were at a planning dinner event.  My colleague ordered water, not wine.  The tenured faculty said, “oh come now, you have to have wine!”  When he ordered the cheapest wine, then they said, “oh come now, you can’t drink that drek!  You have to order a good wine!”

Why didn’t he want to do this?  Because he’d looked at the prices on the menu and knew he could not afford both.

Ultimately, he made an excuse and left early, without ordering dinner.

I was mortified, horrified….and also, “damn I wish I was filming this!”

Having the visual evidence of this interchange would show the real condition of adjunct workers.

I know adjuncts who have lived in their van, lived on food stamps, died without insurance, killed themselves.  Their stories need to be told, and told through art, not just blog posts by disaffected adjuncts and in the CHE.

Deepak Bhargava, Executive Director, Center for Community Change.

There is a move underway to roll back the 20th century.  Workers rights, unions, being a welcoming country to immigrants—trying to undo all of these gains.

There is an attack on the poorest workers in the country, the marginal worker.  in response, there have been direct action campaigns

Stanley Katz, Director, Princeton University Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies, and 2011 National Humanities Medal Recipient.

I am actually on a contingent contract–renewed year by year.  Nevertheless I have an excellent salary, reasonable assurance of permanence, and a beautiful office.

I went to grad school in 1955; while I was there, Sputnik happened.  Jobs exploded.  nobody in my generation had to apply for jobs—there were never enough applicants to fill all the jobs there were.

In my view, we will never return to the former conditions of employment in higher ed, as we had in 1955.

We are under extreme threat to roll back the gains of the 20th century as Deepak said.

Q and A:  Can we really not go back?  I’m not sure we know that.

Supply and Demand on the Academic Job Market: Thoughts on Obsolete Professions

On Tuesday I attended a card-signing event on campus that was the formal launch of the voting process for the University of Oregon faculty union.

The faculty union has been a long time coming, and this time it looks like it might actually happen. I had already signed my union card of course.  I attended the reception because I was curious to see the turnout. There is more resistance than I ever expect on college campuses to unionization efforts, even among ostensibly leftist or radical faculty. It pisses me off.  

The turnout was pretty good.

While I was at the reception (where I got an earful about the shameful erosion of our health benefits this year—likely costing a typical family of four an additional $1600 annually just to start, not counting any catastrophic medical events) I found myself in conversation with a rep from the AAUP.  I told him all about the upcoming New Faculty Majority Summit, “Reclaiming Academic Democracy: Facing the Consequences of Contingent Employment in Higher Education.” and its connections to faculty unionization efforts.

We got to talking about my business, The Professor Is In, and about the crisis of Ph.D. hiring. I spoke about the shame of Ph.D. departments and faculty that continue admitting graduate students all the while knowing the majority of them have no chance of work in their field. My AAUP friend demurred. “It’s not an issue of oversupply,” he said sternly. “Departments don’t have control over the size of their Ph.D. programs. That is determined at the Dean’s office.”

I told him he was wrong, of course. In my departments we certainly had control over the size of our graduate admissions each year. The Dean’s office didn’t dictate a minimum size! On the contrary, it dictated a maximum, by virtue of chronically inadequate TA and fellowship funding. We could easily have admitted fewer students each year, and funded the ones we did admit better. Did we choose to do that? Absolutely not. We continued to wheel and deal and finagle to leverage the maximum number of new Ph.D. admittees out of the circumscribed funds we controlled.

Never, ever, at any time, not even once, was there a discussion of the question: do these Ph.D. students we’re admitting have a reasonable chance of using their Ph.D.s for employment after leaving our program?

That question was entirely irrelevant to our deliberations. The ultimate professional fate of the graduate students had absolutely no significance in their value to us as faculty.

Instead, their value to us as faculty hinged on:

  • Our egos. The “best” (ie, most successful and famous) faculty members had the most students. The quantity of a faculty member’s Ph.D. students boosted the faculty member’s status vis-a-vis colleagues and conferred bragging rights.
  • Our teaching needs. The department quite literally could not run without the teaching labor of the graduate students. In one of my departments the entire first, second, and third year language programs in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean (some 30,000 credit hours annually) were handled entirely by graduate students.
  • Our legitimacy. A department without a Ph.D. program is a second-class department nationally and on campus. A department with a smaller Ph.D. program is a “lesser” department than one with a larger Ph.D. program. No faculty member would willingly work to reduce the size of the department’s graduate program, because it would reduce the status of the program, and thus the status of the faculty members associated with it. Ultimately, it would reduce the standing of those faculty members for things like raises and research funding.

You can’t blame individual faculty members for the crisis,” said the AAUP representative. Au contraire, my friend. You can. You should. Until individual faculty members individually and collectively confront the ways that their own economic self-interest and social capital is fundamentally tied to the recruitment of Ph.D. students who have little or no chance for meaningful, permanent academic careers, this exploitative system will not change.

Some people argue, of course, that the problem in academic hiring is not an oversupply of Ph.D.s, but an “under-demand” of tenure-track lines, given the wholesale shift from tenure-track to short-term adjunct labor.

It is true that demand has plummeted. But so has demand for blacksmiths and switchboard operators. Would anyone have sympathy for a system stubbornly determined to turn out thousands of blacksmiths and switchboard operators a year? Why this defense, then, of a system that turns out thousands of unemployable Ph.D.s?

The difference in the case of the academy is that apparently the evaporation of demand is hidden, even to the workers themselves, who have somehow let themselves be hoodwinked into believing that the academic workplace needs them, and will  provide them with permanent, meaningful, reasonably compensated work.

Nobody is facing or telling the truth here. Certainly not the self-interested faculty. They have no incentives to do so.

Adjuncting and Stockholm Syndrome

A few weeks ago I found myself in an illuminating exchange with a client.  We were “off the clock,” and the dialogue (by skype chat of all things) veered into an interesting and unexpected direction— the psychological state of people in adjunct positions.  I’ve been mulling over our chat ever since.

I am devoting today’s and Thursday’s blog posts to adjunct-related issues as part of my work on the “Social Media Team” (or, affectionately, Twit-squad) of the New Faculty Majority Summit on Contingent Academic Labor in Washington, DC, this Saturday. I’ll be attending, and blogging and tweeting from the site.

In preparation, I want to write today about my chat with my client.

Here’s how it went (with some slight edits for effect):


Adjunct Client (hereafter, AC):  Incidentally, do you offer advice on how to survive being in adjunct hell? You would not believe how close to serfdom my current job is. I told myself I would leap off the Sears Tower before I got into this position. Yet here I am.

Karen: You know….. I’ve been thinking about that. I have never been an adjunct, never experienced the kind of situations I read about from adjunct blogs. What is it exactly—and be specific—that you feel like someone in your position needs help with?

AC: Ah, well, you know. How to make the best of it. Is it appropriate, for example, to assume that since the institution is almost literally asking me to make bricks without straw (no photocopies, for example), and that they’re paying me close to minimum wage, that they don’t expect superstar professional performance from me? I can’t stand the thought of half-assing things. Every cell cries out against it. But we have almost no professional support here. It’s as if the admin doesn’t really care what we do.

I guess my question is, Should I consider my first task being an academic on the job market or being an adjunct?

Karen: Um, that’s easy: academic on the job market. Seriously, do I really need to say that?

AC: Well, I think most people in my position perceive that their first ethical responsibility is to their students. It seems almost fraudulent to me to be working here and still constantly sending out applications. Of course, I’m more neurotic about these matters than some people, but, yes, a lot of my colleagues from grad school say similar things.

Karen: See, this misguided loyalty is what the institutions depend on to exploit you. I mean, it’s not misguided in a sense of higher moral good. But just think—you can’t keep doing good in the world as a teacher if you remain exploited indefinitely. The best good you can do is to find steady work with a liveable income. And to do that, you must be selfish.

AC: Alas!

Karen: Stop with the “alas”! You don’t need to tell me this is an ends justify the means argument. But seriously, throwing yourself personally on the sacrificial altar of student care does not change a fundamentally exploitative system. Your job is to protect yourself.

AC: I can tell you, though, that this is overwhelmingly the mood among people I know. People are cathected onto their teaching.

Karen: Yes, I’ve noticed that, and it’s bizarre to me. Truly bizarre. I have a former Ph.D. student whose committee I was on years back, still run into him occasionally. He’s deeply, profoundly embittered that “all his years of brilliant teaching” have not landed him a job, gotten the respect and recognition of the institution, blah blah blah. Are you kidding me???? Of course it’s not respected! Who respects teaching? Institutions don’t hire you for your teaching! How is that message not getting through????

AC: Oh, because the counter-message is everywhere! It’s like an urban legend among job-seekers. Teaching is everything! Your “teaching portfolio” is the Grail!

Karen: Why? Why? Why? Do you guys not talk to faculty? Or do you not listen to their answers? By faculty, I mean at your Ph.D. institutions, not at the terrible adjunct locations you end up at.

AC: Candidly, we get many, many contradictory claims from faculty.

Karen: Well, fair enough. Most faculty are idiots, pure and simple.

AC: You would not believe how many outright contradictions I got when I was preparing my materials. In the end, I didn’t know what to think. But the worst was simply getting purely impressionistic feedback without specifics. You’ve been a lot more concrete than than most of what I’ve gotten on these materials. And I daresay the vagueness contributes to the the sense of contradiction.

Karen: I can believe that. Faculty members are either ignorant of the true conditions of the market, or else they misguidedly think they’re being “nice” by reassuring you that what you’re doing will turn out ok in the end…

This conversation is incredibly illuminating. I need to write a post on this. Right away.

AC: I can tell you that being “authorized” to be a job-seeker first is a huge relief to me.  Seriously, the sense of fraudulence whenever I start working on an application is overwhelming.

You can quote me. So, yes–preach that Gospel far and wide. Go tell it on the mountain!

Karen: I will. BTW, what do you mean by “sense of fraudulence”?

AC: The sense that I’m merely playing at being a job-seeker to avoid the real work of, say, answering student e-mails (which, after all, is what I’m getting paid for). The sense that a person who describes his “research” while teaching correct comma placement is risible and deluded.

Karen: Dude, that’s fucked up. That is totally Stockholm Syndrome! I mean, why would taking an adjunct job derail your sense of yourself as a legitimate tenure track job seeker with a research agenda?

AC: It’s not just me. Trust me.

Karen: I believe you. But it’s fucked up!


I know that adjuncts need to teach well for a lot of reasons—because they want to be hired again, because they are dependent on good student evaluations, because they’re trying to perfect their craft, because they genuinely care.

But when teaching well becomes an end in itself, and becomes the goal to which all else is sacrificed, including the adjunct’s economic self-protection and psychological self-care, then something is terribly, terribly wrong. That’s where the adjunct begins a willing participant in the mechanisms of his own exploitation. That is Stockholm Syndrome.

Adjuncts cannot necessarily just walk away from the exploitation of the system at large, when adjuncting may be the best option (at least in the immediate term) to utilize the Ph.D. for pay, keep the wolf from the door while seeking permanent work, and create a record that will help in that search. But adjuncts should never, ever identify with their exploiters. They should never cathect onto or identify with the teaching labor that is being extracted from them. Because that is to identify with, form an identity around, the exploitation itself.

Yes the students are being underserved and neglected by the mainstream faculty. Yes they “deserve” better. Guess what? Making the world better for the undergraduates is not your job. It is the job of the tenure-line faculty. If they fail to do it, that is their problem, and they can reap the outcome of that choice.

I can’t stand the thought of half-assing things. Every cell cries out against it.” That’s exactly what they count on. Your higher moral code keeps you working yourself sick for them, for peanuts, while neglecting to invest adequate time in your own self-advancement.

Your job is to take care of yourself, ensure your financial well-being, and pursue your career success through 1) the means that actually accrue useful capital on the tenure track academic job market: peer-reviewed publications and major grants; 2) re-tooling yourself for non-academic work.

Yes, sometimes the exploitation cannot be avoided. But do not ever mistake it for anything but what it is: exploitation. You can live with it for awhile, but never forget that they are not your allies or your friends, they do not have your back, they do not share your values, and they will dispose of you when you are no longer of use to them.  Some of them may be nice people.  That is immaterial.  Do not waste your time raging about how they should “appreciate” all you do for them and their students. They have no economic incentive to do so.  Don’t be your own captor.



Behind The Scenes of a Job Search: Just How Important is Your Teaching? (Guest Post)

This is a Guest Post by a reader who shall remain anonymous.  He teaches at a regional state institution.  It’s the kind of place of which people say, “teaching is what counts.”  He is here to tell us what just happened, this past fall, in a job search, when the rubber hit the road on the question of:  just how important is teaching in ranking the candidates?  Short answer:  not very.  Adjuncts:  read this and learn.  Your teaching will not get you a tenure-track job.


I am a tenure-track assistant professor in the humanities. I work at the sort of school that most of us, when we entered graduate school, thought we would only consider working at if we couldn’t get a job anywhere else. The teaching load is heavy. The location is not ideal for most academics. The institutional culture can, at times, seem more like the DMV than an institution of higher learning.

This year I was on a search committee, which recently concluded its work with a successful hire. We got a lot of applications. We had meetings to figure out how to sort through these applications, how to rank them against each other in relatively objective ways that would also allow us to process the many candidates. This is when a very interesting thing happened.

There was a major conflict over how to rank candidates, and the conflict spilled out beyond the confines of the committee and the department itself.  It was only resolved when administration delivered a verdict.

I mentioned that we have a heavy teaching load.  Some junior faculty—not the most junior, but those hired before 2009— thought that this meant we should mainly prioritize teaching experience, statements of teaching philosophy, teaching portfolios, course evaluations, and so on in our rankings. They thought that because we have a heavy teaching load, our school has a mainly teaching mission, and candidates should be judged on their teaching.

This reflected their own vision of their job. They were relatively content to come here, settle in, teach a few courses, publish the minimum amount needed for tenure, and then lead the comfortable life of the tenured professor. This was an entirely reasonable set of expectations when they were hired, and it is what most tenured faculty at the school have indeed done. Some are good teachers, some are bad, very few are known in their field. By and large, it’s not a bad life and most of them are pretty content. It does, however, lend the place the aforementioned DMV-like atmosphere at times.

There was another school of thought.  The really junior faculty—the ones hired after 2009—wanted colleagues more like them.  They have significant research profiles, publish, win money for research, and do extra service, while being fine teachers.  Their line of argument went, “none of us were great teachers when hired, but we learned to teach perfectly well, so let’s prioritize hiring someone who is an active scholar, publishes a lot, and who won’t just phone it in in terms of service.”

Although some of these post-2009 hires are actively seeking new positions, others have sunk roots in the locale. All realize that, given the state of the job market, they could be here a long time and want to make the best of the situation.   They are dedicated to raising the research ranking and developing the research culture of the institution, and see themselves as contributing to its transformation.

A stalemate ensued. No agreement could be reached. 

Would it be “teaching-first?” In that case, the many multi-year adjuncts would have a distinct rankings advantage, despite no real signs of research or non-teaching accomplishments.

Or would serious research potential win out?  In that case, we’d focus on someone with exciting ideas and a dynamic research agenda.  We had a great pool of freshly-minted PhDs to choose from who had a little bit of teaching experience but already had several publications.

At one point the “teaching first” crowd invoked a moral argument. How could we look at all these multi-year adjuncts and not give one of them a job? They had dedicated themselves to their students and been super-exploited by various schools in order to barely scrape by as adjunct professors. Certainly, it made us all sad to see people teaching eight or nine classes a semester for half our salary and no benefits. Frankly, I think I cried looking at a couple of their c.v.s (and only in part because of how poorly written they were). But, you don’t hire people out of pity, and even the “teaching first” crowd realized the absurdity of this line of argument after a little while.

In the end we hit a stalemate between these two diametrically opposed visions of the institution, a stalemate that was only resolved when Administration weighed in.

And, eyes always on the bottom line, the administration spoke:  Research Wins.

The administration did not waste time wringing its hands and piously invoking our teaching mission. “Teaching mission?”  Please.  That’s for the public.  As they told the department in no uncertain terms, active scholars make the best teachers.  Indeed, they promptly took the opportunity to chastise the “teaching first” crowd, publicly, that their tenure cases would be at risk if they didn’t step it up and publish more themselves.

The message was very clear: anyone can teach, and the administration is tired of professors who come here, settle into teaching and then do a minimal level of research and service both.  The research-centric post-2009 hire, by contrast, are competitive with junior faculty at higher ranked schools with lower teaching burdens. Apparently, this boosts the campus’s standing with the state, which brings more money in, which makes administrators happy.

The lesson to be derived from all this? Once you can show that you have taught a couple classes successfully, teaching does not count very much toward getting hired even at teaching-heavy regional institutions like mine. Administrators correlate an emphasis on teaching with long-term lack of productivity and unwillingness to do time-consuming, necessary service post-tenure.

Meanwhile, junior faculty who have been hired in the past three years correlate a teaching emphasis with boring people they can’t talk to about cutting edge research, and who probably won’t even get the jokes we make.

We won’t even speak of the colleagues who can’t be bothered to do anything at all.

A caveat on teaching: Do not draw the conclusion from what I have written here that you should apply for a teaching-heavy position if you are totally averse to teaching. While teaching may not count too much in getting hired, you will do a lot of it once you are hired, and if you can’t learn to sometimes enjoy it (and other times not hate it too much), you will be miserable at a school with a heavy teaching-load. That kind of misery makes most people totally unproductive, and you will most likely not be able to publish your way out of the job. Your first semester with a heavy teaching load will be rough, and so you will want to be able to enjoy the challenge and manage the steep learning curve and get some satisfaction from watching yourself progress as a teacher and from teaching students in general.


Why You Need Recommenders From Outside Your Department

I’ve had a raft of new clients this past couple of weeks seeking my help in strategizing for the Fall 2012 job market. I applaud this foresight and planning, and recommend it to all who know they will be on the market next year.

One piece of advice that I shared with each of these clients is: start cultivating a third or fourth recommendation letter writer who is not from your Ph.D. granting institution.

This may come as a surprise to some of you, but having all of your letters come from faculty from your Ph.D. institution/committee is a sure-fire sign of a job candidate “Not Ready For Prime Time.”

It isn’t a complete deal-breaker, particularly if you are blessed with faculty members from your campus/department who are exceedingly famous and influential in their own right. Similarly, if you are an early ABD, the absence of an external letter writer will not be completely damning.

But the fact is, the best, strongest, most successful competitors for the jobs you’re applying for–even the ABDs– will have cultivated well-known, influential senior scholars in their field/niche, from outside of their campus, to write for them.

And if you are more than one year beyond your Ph.D.? Then the reliance on your Ph.D. department faculty for your recommendations quickly begins to stand out, and eventually, within a few short years, will damage your candidacy and destroy your chances for tenure track jobs.

Why is this the case? Once again, because it speaks directly to the hiring priorities of tenure-track (as opposed to adjunct or temporary) search committees.

Tenure track search committees are seeking to hire colleagues, not graduate students. The faculty from your Ph.D. program, however, know you as a graduate student. They may think highly of you, but ultimately they will speak about you in terms of your performance in their classes, your work as a TA, and your writing in the dissertation.

No tenure-track committee is hiring somebody to be a good graduate student, work as a TA, or write a good dissertation. They are hiring somebody to bring to the department their national and international reputation and achievements as a professional scholar.

Ultimately, the letter writers who can best speak to your reputation and achievements at this level are scholars outside of your graduate program with whom you have collaborated, as a (junior) peer, on conference panels, professional symposia, and various publications.  This is why at least one of these letter-writers should be cultivated by every tenure-track job seeker.

I think I hear wails of despair, in the vein of “How can I possibly DO this?”

It is not difficult, but it takes time. First of all, you need to put yourself out there. You need to actually attend national conferences, as well as brown bag talks, workshops, and symposia on your campus. You have to pursue publication opportunities as they arise, and above all, in your debut year on the market, organize a high profile panel for your national conference. These are the occasions in which you begin to meet and mingle with scholars from other parts.

If there are scholars whose work has been particularly influential on your own, make the effort to meet them at a conference, as I describe in this post. Ask for even just 15 minutes of their time, if they are very busy. It is possible they might have time for coffee. Whatever it takes, get a conversation started.

After an acquaintanceship has been made, stay in touch. Send an email thanking them for their time. Ask your department if they can be invited to campus. Invite them to serve as a discussant on another panel that you are organizing.

If they agree to serve as a discussant, send them your paper well in advance, and ask, politely and relatively diffidently, for early comments to help your writing of the final draft. They might not have time. But they might do it. If they do, incorporate their comments. Then engage with them at the panel itself, and continue the conversation afterward, over drinks.

As the acquaintanceship grows, ask for their advice on smallish matters such as a publication venue for a mss., or a grant opportunity.

Now, there is one rule of cultivating supporters/letter writers, and that is: Do. Not. Impose. Also, do not send long, dreary emails about your struggles in your department and suffering at the hands of your wretched advisor. Nobody wants to hear it. They will, however, often lend a hand, as long as they are not imposed on, to assist a junior scholar.

When time has passed, ask your acquaintance if he or she would have time to read a chapter of your dissertation and send feedback. Do not impose a deadline, and give them plenty of time. If they agree, that’s a good sign that they support your work and development. Incorporate some of their suggestions, engage in dialogue about their comments, and be sure and thank them warmly for the time investment.

And now, when you have established a warm working relationship, you may broach the question of their serving as one of your letter-writers. Be aware that they may have their own Ph.D.s on the market, who are competing against you for the same jobs. It is possible that even if they like and support you, they will not be willing to write a letter. Don’t take it personally; it is a legitimate choice on their part. But chances are, they could well agree to write for you.

And once they do, you now have the perspective not of someone who was basically “paid to take care of you” in their capacity as one of the graduate faculty in your department, but rather an impartial, independent agent, who can evaluate you vis-a-vis your field as a whole. Their letter provides evidence of your participation on a national level, and signals your early preparedness for your ultimate tenure case down the line.

By contrast, the Ph.D. In her fourth year on the market who is still relying on a letter from a graduate faculty member that says things like “Jennifer produced an A paper for my seminar!” or “She was the best TA in the program,” or “She wrote a very comprehensive and impressive dissertation,” is trailing the ghostly aura of her graduate student self behind her, signalling that she is, still, not really tenure-track material.



How To Give a Teaching Demonstration (A Guest Post)

Today’s post is a Guest Post by Dr. Melissa A Barlett, who is an Instructor in Biology at Mohawk Valley Community College in Utica, NY.  Melissa kindly came to my rescue when I asked for a post on the Teaching Demonstration.  As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve had only one of these in my career, and bombed it so badly I have wiped it mostly from my memory.  I made the classic mistake of assuming the students had read the assigned text, based my entire lesson plan on discussion of the reading, and then had to stand there in the excruciatingly painful silence of a roomful of non-participants for most of 50 minutes.  It was dreadful.  Thanks, Melissa, for sharing the insights that will prevent this from happening to others.  (For a bit more on the subject, be sure to also read the Addendum in the middle of this post, provided by another reader).

Take it away, Melissa!  (and see below for a later addendum added by Karen in April 2015)


One of the things that makes Academic Interviews so much different from many other interviews is the presentation. Depending on your discipline and the school you are applying to, this can come in a variety of forms. For example, after a year’s worth of interviews for biology positions, I could give my research seminar in my sleep. However, in some schools, and especially SLACs, they are starting to get away from the research seminar and are moving more towards the teaching demonstration where you actually teach either a lesson or an entire class.

For many people, this is a terrifying prospect. You probably haven’t spent much time in front of students. Even a typical TA, in my field at least, is not usually creating their own lecture materials on a regular basis. Of course, since a huge part of what you’ll be doing in the near future, especially if you get this job, will be teaching, this is probably something that the committee will weigh heavily. Therefore, you want to do everything you can to make a great teaching impression.

Fortunately, I have some tips to help you out.

Tip 1: Know your audience

Ask lots of questions.

Are you actually teaching a class or are you giving a demonstration mainly to faculty? If it is a class, be sure you know the student population. Are they majors? Non-majors? Freshmen? Seniors? If you are only doing a demonstration, ask specifically what level/type of student that your teaching should be geared for.

Teach to the correct level. You are not showing off how much you know in a teaching demonstration. You are trying to show how well you can explain a complex concept to someone who has never studied it. Even if you are teaching to a “class” of faculty, treat them like the students you would be teaching. This isn’t talking down, nor should it be to students, but be sure you define terms as appropriate and go over difficult concepts a few times. Repeating things 2-3 different ways is a common teaching technique.

One of the best things you can do is try to physically engage your audience. This can really depend on the type of class. For very large classes of younger students, engagement is often more difficult. I like to throw out simple yes/no questions near the beginning of my lectures. Then I can ask “How many people say yes?” and when no one raises their hands, I add on, “nodding is a completely acceptable way of responding.” Usually, if you work them in slowly, head nods will turn into hands raising. Even then, my favorite line was, “How many for A? How many for B? How many abstain from answering?” Students always raise hands for that last one, which shows that they are listening. I also once did a sorting exercise during a teaching demonstration where I had two columns and put up a word on the powerpoint. I then had the students point right or left as to where it went. They didn’t have to talk, but they mostly played along. This lets you and the evaluating faculty know the students are listening.

Tip 2: Make the material fit the course and the time

Find out not only the topic, but where this topic fits into the course outline. Better yet, find out what textbook they use and find/borrow a copy so you know what the students will be seeing.

Choose the topics that you will cover to fit into the time period. Going over time in a seminar is usually forgiven. If you are teaching a class and you go over, they might just walk out on you, which is probably not the impression you want to make. I’d even say aim for shorter rather than longer. Although, being able to show that you can time a lecture within 5-10 minutes of class time goes a long way to showing that you could do that when you are teaching as well. What this might mean is that you have to teach a smaller chunk of material than the probably broad topic you were given. Choose something that makes a good complete story. It is impossible to cover an entire actual textbook in a semester of lecturing. Showing that you can pick and choose the important topics or choose an appropriate level of detail shows you could do that in your own class.

As a biologist, I teach Human Biology to non-majors. I don’t need to cover the material that would be covered in an Anatomy and Physiology class, so I choose to focus on how structure relates to function and not on the details of each system. I want my students to see how signals travel in the nervous system, but I don’t need to stand up in front of them and describe what each neurotransmitter does in detail.

Tip 3: Use visuals effectively

The number one way to lose students is to hit them with a block of text or a non-stop lecture. There are probably two main possibilities of visuals for this demonstration: powerpoint or writing on a board. I’ll discuss both. First of all, find out as much as you can about the room and the available technology. Is there a computer set-up? A place to plug in a laptop? Chalk? Smart board or white board? The more you know, the better you can prepare.

Writing on the board

The bonus to this method is that you are showing that you are comfortable enough with the topic to not need extra visuals. However, this is not a method you should use if you have bad handwriting (or in my case, can’t draw a picture to save her life).  The other problem is that you have to turn away from the class to write. Be sure not to talk to the board! You say something, turn and write the word/phrase, and then turn back around and say it again. It will feel strange to you if you’ve never done that before because for the moment that you are writing, there is silence. Most people hate silence, but when teaching, it gives the students a chance to write and process the material. You can’t rush through a lecture. In all cases, watch the students. If most of them are writing, pause. Thirty seconds of silence will seem like ten minutes, but it will show that you are aware of the students’ needs. Many times, students are told they will be tested on this material. Keep that in mind.


To avoid rushing through a powerpoint based lecture, you need to be aware of how much text you put on the slides. As a general rule, less is more. I typically use sparse bullet-pointed lists containing only the most complicated terminology. Remember: your presentation supplements your lecture, it shouldn’t be your lecture. I’m a huge fan of pictures, videos, and animations. The whole point of the computer is to explain things that are difficult to talk about or draw on the board. Make use of that. I typically browse Google Images and YouTube for materials that are different than the textbooks. I’ve been known to have ten slides in a row with just a title and 1-2 pictures. If you are any good at all with powerpoint animation functions, use them. People are always impressed with a well-done animation. Do not use a canned presentation, make your own. I was asked on multiple occasions if my presentation was premade, and I was glad to be able to answer “no.”

Some other quick notes about making a great looking powerpoint for teaching. Assume you will be in a lit room (dark rooms put students to sleep, keep the lights on), and therefore, you should use a light background and dark text. However, don’t use white, it’s too bright to look at for long periods. Use a light color and a dark color of matching text. Preferably, use a gradient on your background, but still in light colors, for example: light blue transitioning to light green. On that I would use a nearly black navy text in bold. Make sure it’s bold, and at least 24 point font (watch the font sizes on pictures). Most of the pre-made choices for backgrounds are terrible, don’t use them. Don’t use a dark background and light text, it’s hard to read in a lit room. Don’t mix red and green, just don’t.

Here’s an example of a slide from one of my presentations on how to give a presentation.

Tip 4: Practice

Unless you are an experienced improviser who feels like they can estimate times without practicing, you should always practice. Gather up your closest friends and colleagues and teach them. The best thing you can do is use a mixed audience as well. Use your spouse/friend in another field and see if they can follow and understand you. Ask them about your flow, how topics run into each other, and how the story connects together.

Then, have them ask you questions. Tell them to channel their inner annoying freshmen and ask questions like, “Will this be on the test?” When you are answering questions, don’t forget not to make up answers for students. Even during a teaching demonstration, it is fair to respond with, “You know, I’m not sure about that, but I’d be glad to discuss it with you after class.” Or, if you have an excited questioner in your class, you can try, “That’s really interesting, and I’d love to talk more with you later about it, but it’s more detail than the class needs to know, so hold that thought until after class.” You might have the faculty ask you “student” questions. I know I did at one of my interviews. Answer them the same way as you would a student, this is a teaching demonstration, demonstrate being a teacher.

So, these basic tips: know your audience, make the material fit the course and time, use visuals effectively, and practice should be able to help you on your way. The only other major tip I have for you is to have fun! You are in this field because you love it, and as a teacher, one of your jobs is to make your students love it as well. Let that come through, and everyone will notice.

I talked more than you should in your lectures, so I think that’s enough!

Good luck!


Refer to this excellent column by Rob Jenkins in the Chronicle of HIgher Ed on Teaching Demos:


January 26, 2009

Demonstration or Demolition?



The teaching demo is arguably the most important part of the community-college interview — and the most terrifying

If you’re fortunate enough to have scored a job interview at a two-year college, congratulations. Now it’s time to start preparing for what is arguably the most important, probably the most arduous, and certainly the most daunting (judging from the e-mail messages I receive) part of the interview: the teaching demonstration.

Over the course of my 30 years’ teaching at community colleges, I’ve observed dozens of teaching demos. Only a few were actually good. Most were just OK, and many were downright awful. I’ve seen a number of otherwise-solid candidates derailed by their demonstrations, and many other people whom we hired despite a lackluster performance, hoping against hope that it was an aberration.

Those candidates were not bad teachers. OK, some of them were, but in most cases, the problem was not that they didn’t know how to teach but rather that they didn’t know how to conduct a teaching demonstration during a job interview. The two things, while obviously related, aren’t exactly the same.

Here, then, are some tips to remember as you prepare your teaching demo.

It’s a demonstration, not a presentation. One of the biggest mistakes job candidates make is treating the teaching demo like a conference talk, sometimes even complete with PowerPoint slides and handouts of those same slides.

It’s not that using technology is a bad idea (more on that later); it’s just that candidates who are using it in that particular way are demonstrating the wrong thing. They’re showing the committee how well they can present information to peers in a conference setting, not how well they can teach students in a college classroom.

The problem with the presentation approach is that candidates spend all their time talking about what they would do in such-and-such a class rather than actually doing it. That deprives committee members of the opportunity to observe the way candidates present real material in a real-time, quasi-classroom setting. And that’s what we need to see in order to hire the best teachers.

Choose a manageable topic. While some search committees allow candidates to choose a subject for their demonstration, most panels provide the topic. In fact, committees often give all of the candidates the same topic in an attempt to place everyone on an equal footing.

If you don’t get to pick your topic, you still have some important choices to make: Exactly what information, and how much, do you hope to convey in the time allotted (usually 15 to 20 minutes)? How will you present it? Will you mostly lecture? Invite some discussion? Involve everyone in a group activity? Dazzle committee members with your technological brilliance?

The first step is to narrow your topic to something you can manage in your few minutes on stage. Here again, one of the biggest mistakes that candidates make is covering too much information — basically, trying to squeeze a 50-minute lecture into a 15-minute presentation. Once again, they end up talking about what they do instead of doing it.

My advice is to identify a 15to 20-minute segment of a familiar lesson, an excerpt that can stand on its own without a lot of background or lead-in material. Preferably, it should be something you’ve taught often enough that you already know how you’re going to present it.

Treat committee members like students. Sometimes a search committee will give you this directive explicitly, either in written preinterview instructions or verbally as you’re about to begin. But whether they mention it or not, remember that you can’t teach without students — and committee members are the only other people in the room. (It’s true that a few colleges have job candidates teach actual students in a classroom setting, while committee members observe. But in most hiring situations at two-year colleges, it’s the committee members themselves you’ll be “teaching.”)

Treating committee members as if they were students means forgetting, for a few minutes, that they hold your professional future in their hands and relating to them as you would to students in a classroom. Address them just as you would address students. Ask them questions, try to engage them in discussion, and call on them to answer. Involve them in activities, whether they, much like real students, appear willing or not.

Although that approach may seem to involve a great deal of role-playing on your part — and perhaps on the part of committee members as well — it actually provides them with invaluable insight into your teaching style, your classroom manner, and your ability to establish a rapport with an audience.

Just be careful not to appear condescending. If you do, committee members will wonder if you will treat a bunch of 18to 20-year-olds the same way, or worse. And don’t take the “student/teacher” relationship too far, like the candidate who confiscated a committee member’s cellphone during “class.”

Do more than lecture. Tempting as it might be to stand up and talk for 15 minutes, don’t. And for heaven’s sake, don’t simply read from lecture notes; that’s a surefire way to eliminate yourself from contention.

At the very least, mix in a little discussion and some question and answer. (One nice thing about having faculty members as your “students”: They’re going to know the answers.) And be sure to distribute at least one handout that clearly enhances the lesson.

You might also use a group activity, although I would add three caveats: First, make sure the activity is, shall we say, age-appropriate. Don’t be like the candidate who gave each of us on the search committee a cracker, asked us to stare at it for three minutes, and then instructed us to write a paragraph about what we saw. I confess: I just saw a cracker.

Second, don’t use an activity that will take up too much of your time. We want you to do more than just lecture, but we do want to hear you lecture. So choose an activity that can be completed in no more than five to seven minutes.

Finally, don’t expect committee members to be any more enthusiastic about participating in your activity than your actual students would be.

Use bells and whistles — in moderation. After you are invited to an interview that includes a teaching demonstration, one of the first things you should find out is what kind of technology will be available to you. If it’s something you’re comfortable using — that is, something you already use regularly — plan to use it in your teaching demo. So, for example, if you normally use PowerPoint in your classroom, or like to pull up YouTube videos on the Internet, the committee would probably love to see you do it.

On the other hand, you shouldn’t go to great lengths to concoct some “totally wired” lesson plan that doesn’t reflect the way you actually teach, just to show how savvy you are. Your lack of comfort (and perhaps familiarity) with the technology will almost certainly be evident.

Also, even if you’re a bona fide geek, avoid giving a teaching demo that is so technologically based that it’s almost a lesson on technology rather than on the topic at hand. Remember, search committees at community colleges are looking for the best teachers, not necessarily the best techies. By all means, dazzle them with technology, but do more than just dazzle. Teach.

And bear in mind that if you do intend to use technology, it’s vital to have a backup plan. In my experience, nothing is more common during teaching demonstrations than for the classroom technology to malfunction. So if you’re using a CD, have the data on a flash drive as well. Prepare handouts that you can substitute for the images that won’t appear on the screen if the projector refuses to boot up. (Here’s where those copies of your PowerPoint slides might come in handy.) If all else fails, be prepared to teach in the old-fashioned way.

By following those few simple steps, you can set yourself apart from other candidates. And if you’re interviewing at my institution, where I’m once again serving on a search committee, I’m not just suggesting you follow my advice — I’m begging.

After all, how many awful teaching demos can one person sit through?

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English and director of the Writers Institute at Georgia Perimeter College.


What Inside Candidates Persist in Doing Wrong

Today’s post looks directly at the question of the inside candidate.

It goes without saying that most people on the job market fiercely resent the inside candidate, assuming that he or she has endless advantages over external applicants.

I am here to say that in my experience, this is not true. Indeed, I have more often seen the opposite. I see insider candidates NOT getting the job more often than not, and then being subjected to particularly dreadful, awkward, painful interactions with the department for months or years as they continue on in a temporary or adjunct contract while the tenure track search and hire proceeds in front of them.

The reason that insider candidates tend to do poorly, in my observation, is that they misunderstand the difference between an adjunct and a tenure track search.

Adjunct hiring is often decided based on personal relationships, but tenure track hiring almost never is. Tenure track hiring is absolutely cutthroat, and is dominated by an ethos of “desire for the unattainable.” This means that the unknown, who promises seemingly limitless possibility for achievement and contribution, will almost always prevail over the known.

The only way that the known can compete with the unknown is to present themselves IDENTICALLY to the unknown candidates. That is, by submitting materials that make little or no reference to pre-existing relationships in the department,and articulate a scholarly profile completely independent of the department.

I have had three insider candidates come through the doors of The Professor Is In this fall, and all three made the identical mistake—they wrote letter drafts that were entirely relationship-based. The letters were hyper-emotional, mind-bogglingly pandering, and depended on a completely unprofessional second person pronoun (you). The word that I found myself thinking, as I read them, was “smarmy.”

It goes without saying, smarmy does not get tenure track jobs.

Here are some examples of this kind of writing (these are made-up examples inspired by actual letters, but with details changed)

“It has been an enormous pleasure and privilege to teach at your department and I would be honored to continue on in a permanent capacity.”

“I have been deeply impressed by your commitment to student mentoring and have striven to improve my own mentoring skills during my past year here.”  

“As you know, my course on Whitman was very popular! I of course benefited from the Whitman resources that we are fortunate to have at our library.”

“I was honored to be given the duty of directing our Undergraduate Major Association and in that capacity I organized pizza and movie nights, which our students told me were the highlight of the semester.”

I’ll be blunt. It is hard for me overstate my distaste for verbiage such as this. Really, people. Have some dignity. Some self-respect.

It is not coincidental that all of these clients were women.

Women are particularly prone to this kind of relationship-talk, and to assuming that their “niceness,” teaching, and service efforts will win friends and influence people.

What niceness, teaching and service do, for an adjunct, is ensure that you are a perpetual adjunct.

The tenure-track candidate, by contrast, sells herself on her profile as a scholar. Even at a teaching-oriented school, the tenure-track hire is a scholarly hire—that scholar will simply spend relatively more time teaching.

And scholarship is not warm and fuzzy. Scholarship is rigorous. It is done at a high level of expertise, and it is, by its very nature, not easily accessible to people outside the field. The proper ethos of a scholar applying for a tenure track job will always rest on an aura of expertise that is NOT “nice” but maintains a certain professional distance and dignity. That does not mean behaving like an entitled asshole. It does mean remembering that they want you for what they DON’T see, but respect nevertheless, which is your expertise and authority in the field, or your particular niche in the field.

In short, the tenure track search is about making THEM want YOU. If you pander to them, cater to them, overtly appeal to them, and try to play off of pre-existing personal relationships and your ethos of “giving” to the department, you are defining yourself as, fundamentally, NOT TENURE TRACK MATERIAL.

I won’t say men never do this, but if there was ever a pitfall that women are particularly prone to, this is it.

So, insider candidates: everything that I write in my posts about how to write a cover letter, and a teaching statement, and tailor a letter, and articulate a second project (this one in particular!!!), and how to handle an interview, and not act like a grad student, etc., you must do in spades. Your professional identity must be infallible.

In short, boiled down to its core, the message to the inside candidate for the tenure track job search is: play hard to get.



Job Market Horror Stories, Part I: The Rescinded Offer

This is another guest post by a reader who shall remain anonymous.  This reader kindly wrote in response to my request for stories about “rescinded offers.”  The stories here are alarming, although in this reader’s case, they have a happy ending.


This past year, when I was on the job market, academic colleagues would often ask me how the search was going. When with friends, I often replied that I was having a terrible time on the market. But when they pressed me for details, and I admitted that I had had several on campus visits that led to offers, they often withdrew, their faces expressing disbelief and irritation. How could that possibly constitute a ‘terrible’ time on the market?

For me, it wasn’t the applications or the interviews, or even the grinding anxiety and looming sense of despair I felt about the possibility of not securing an academic position—any academic position. Instead, ironically, for me the worst part of the overall experience was what happened after I received offers for positions.

While I did ultimately receive—and happily accept—an offer from an institution that could not have been more honest, open, generous, or gracious in its dealings with me, I also experienced an astounding degree of dishonesty in my post-offer interactions with others. My hope is that I emerged the wiser—and much more cautious—and that my experiences can serve as cautionary tales and lessons for others who are on the market or advising current job seekers.

My first on-campus interview was at a major research university where I was in the midst of a one-year postdoctoral fellowship in an affiliated program. There had been open anticipation in the department and program for several months that a line for a TT position in my field would open up that year (and that I might be hired for it) and so I had a substantial amount of time to ponder what I thought of as my dream job.

I was fortunate enough to receive a request for an on-campus interview and did so along with several other candidates. Several weeks later, to my great delight, I was offered the position in person by the department Chair. I was assured at the time that the offer had the support of the Dean of the College—and that an offer in writing would follow within a certain (very short) number of business days. In the same meeting, I was encouraged to immediately generate and submit my requests for a start up package, salary, and even a spousal hire, but explicitly told to not tell anyone about the offer.

In hindsight, I realize that this should have been my first hint that this much desired offer might not be as firm as I thought. Indeed, a few days later, when I returned as scheduled to receive the offer in writing and engage in formal negotiations, I was told by the teary-eyed Chair, without any preface, that the Dean had reconsidered, re-evaluated the other applicants, and in light of my comparatively lower qualifications (I had received my doctorate very recently and several of the other candidates were tenure track faculty at other institutions), decided to rescind the offer. In fact, an offer had already been made to one of the other candidates, while I was still ecstatically pricing supplies for my start up.

For me the trial wasn’t quite over yet, though. As a so-called “inside candidate”, my feelings of humiliation and disbelief weren’t allowed to recede in the anonymity of a far off department. Instead, I got to hear, second hand, about how negotiations with the second candidate were proceeding. None of the faculty ever mentioned the subject again, but as I was currently teaching in the department, every day of the next few months brought strained, vague but sympathy-filled interactions or averted eyes and outright avoidance, and conversations that ended abruptly when I walked in the door.

In the end, months after the offer had presumably been negotiated with the second candidate, I received an impersonal form letter informing me that the position had been successfully offered to another; someone had used a pen to correct the letter to reflect that I had been on the short list.

A request for an on-campus interview at another, smaller university quickly followed my cataclysmic meeting with the Chair and provided a much needed distraction. I had a very successful, warmth-filled on-campus interview, and spent almost two months hoping for an offer.

After sending a feeler e-mail to the Chair, I was delighted to hear, by e-mail, that an offer was in the works. But when the Chair called with the specifics a few days later, I was deeply underwhelmed by the offer, which included a salary and start-up that were profoundly below disciplinary, regional, and even university-level averages.

The written version, which followed quickly afterwards, was even more inauspicious; it failed to state that the position was tenure track (as advertised), offered only a one year contract, supplied vague statements about the teaching load, and indicated that the offer was “tentative.” My request for a slightly increased salary and start up were met with a statement from the Dean, communicated through the Chair, that they refused to negotiate unless I could supply a print copy of a competing offer from another university. Only a day before I was required to respond to the offer, I received an e-mail from the Chair offering minor adjustments, but providing dramatic clarifications on the teaching load: that only a nine month contract was being offered but teaching summer sessions was mandatory (and thus unpaid), that the course load for the academic year was much higher than previously stated…and that I now needed to respond to the offer hours before the previously specified deadline.

In an instance of incredible luck, I received an offer from my present employer just hours before the new deadline and was able to politely refuse this second offer.

Since then, from a position of safety, I’ve learned through limited conversations with colleagues and months of fervent late night browsing of posts on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s website, the Academic Jobs Wiki, and numerous other academic blogs run by professors and graduate students alike that my experiences are not exactly the norm but certainly not solitary anomalies. Academic job seekers increasingly find themselves in a ‘buyer’s market’ for academic positions. University administrators and department chairs are under intensifying pressure to justify every new addition to the faculty and to get the most ‘bang for their buck’ in research output and grant acquisitions from these hires.

In these environs, my experiences—and those I have learned of from others—have taught me a few lessons that I hope may be of use to others.

First, don’t believe anything until you have it in writing. By this, I mean a formal offer letter, such as from the Dean, not an e-mail. This may seem like a tired trope, but when you’ve been dragging it out on the job market for months—or years—a hint of an offer over the phone or by e-mail from the Chair can seem like a tremendous relief. Keep in mind though, that only when you have an offer in writing, for example, do you have a legally defensible position should anything go awry in the proceedings. Promised benefits, teaching loads, and other aspects of the position can and may change between the conversations you had with the Chair and the Dean during your interview, and the specifics of the offer when it actually arrives.

(Note of advice: keep written notes on your conversations during your interview (and let them see you doing it), and save every single e-mail. A paper trail can be critical for navigating the potentially tortuous route of negotiations).

Chairs and search committees select their preferred candidate and recommend them to the Dean. At this point, I have learned that many optimistic (or potentially imprudent) Chairs may alert the candidate that an offer is in the works. But that this is merely a recommendation is the key point.

The great majority of Deans do accept the choice of the department, trusting that their faculty know best how to evaluate their peers. But some Deans do not, perhaps because of internal politics, conflicts, or feuds that exist between the Dean, the Provost, the Chair, or even the department itself. These pressures can exert an influence on the acceptance of a candidate, the leeway given to negotiate, and other aspects of the process, that you have no way of anticipating (even if you are an “inside candidate”).

Some universities have developed a reputation for recalcitrant Deans, but the experience is obviously not uniform, even there. A thorough searching of chat rooms, blogs, and advice columns for academic job seekers will reveal the occasional traumatized soul who, like myself, had what seemed like a such a sure thing over the phone or by e-mail ripped out from under them. Stay on your guard; only when a formal, signed offer letter has arrived should you breathe anything resembling a sigh of relief.

Second, don’t believe it necessarily even when you have it in writing. As a job candidate, you may be fortunate enough to be selected by a school that is honest, gracious, transparent, and highly communicative, as I was with the institution where I now work. However, many of us are not, or have experiences with less than professional entities along their career trajectory. As I learned with my second offer, not all offer letters are alike. While the second university’s offer letter looked ambiguous to me, I certainly didn’t have the experience to know just how many loopholes and gaps it actually presented. Be cautious and considerate as to whom you show the letter to—you don’t necessarily know whom the other candidates for the job might be—but make sure to show the offer letter to your adviser, other seasoned faculty members, and your current Chair if you can (who is likely to be very well versed in the language of hiring and negotiations).

Negotiations are extremely intimidating (especially for women, as many studies have shown), and yet they really are the sole opportunity you have to clarify every aspect of the position you are about to legally commit to (I’ve heard stories from senior faculty of candidates who, eager to play the odds or fighting for time while waiting for another offer, will sign and return an offer letter only to refuse the position when a better offer arrives, but remember, once it’s in writing (and signed), both sides are technically legally bound to the agreement).

In addition to the excitement of negotiating for start up funds or course release, make sure that you understand and agree with all of the technicalities of the position (teaching load can be especially slippery as multiple sections of a given course can hide behind that simple semester to semester ratio, and summer teaching responsibilities can slip in unnoticed sometimes). Make sure all ambiguities are resolved and that everything is specified to the letter because there won’t really be opportunities to alter the contract later (unless you land an external offer). This is it, and you have to make sure that you will be able to live on the salary, manage the teaching load, and afford the time and costs necessary for research. Give yourself time to do this as well.

Translating between the Dean, the Provost, the Chair, and you can take days, let alone when you need to truly negotiate and a counter-offer has to be produced. Also, while I didn’t have this particular experience, keep in mind that the vaults of the internet occasionally yield a truly awful tale of a print, in hand offer letter being rescinded by the Dean in the midst of negotiations. This is your time to secure the details of your future position, but make sure to not let confidence override your sense of caution. The administration and the department have their own objectives and needs, and deafly or blindly pushing too hard might not just yield a hostile resentment from your colleagues when you arrive for you start date, it might also, in our buyer’s market, yield a rescinded offer. Be cautious and do not fall into overconfidence.

Lastly (and this may be the hardest to swallow for the most recession-weary and embittered job seekers) inside candidates don’t necessarily receive copious advantages, nor are they the certain recipient of the position. Conversations preserved on the Academic Jobs Wiki show the flurry of anger and pessimism that often arise when it is revealed that there is an inside candidate at the school offering an advertised job position. The advantages of being ‘on the inside’ have been discussed at length elsewhere and I won’t repeat them. The disadvantages are often brought up to the counter them—namely that you don’t have the appealing glimmer of novelty and your history with the department and the search committee may not be uniformly positive and collegial.

The disadvantage not often discussed is that as an inside candidate, especially in the gossip-filled, incestuous little world of academic departments, you will be witness to every single step of the hiring process. You will see—or at least hear of—the other candidates when they come to interview, and the angst of this will likely be heightened by the fact that if your field is small, you are likely to know them as colleagues, if not as friends. In most situations, especially as the inside candidate is unlikely to have a nepotistic relationship with the Dean or Provost, all of the candidates have a roughly equal chance at the position before the interviews occur—it’s why you made it onto the short list, after all.

Be optimistic, but overall be cautious. The toughness and unpredictability of the job market doesn’t grind to a halt when the offer arrives.


How To Describe a Course (In an Interview)

Today I am going to devote the post to a brief but vital explanation of how to describe, in an interview, a course you propose to teach. I am doing this as a result of Interview Bootcamps lately, in which one candidate after another falls down while attempting to describe the courses they hope to teach.

It doesn’t matter the course—the Intro course, the graduate methods seminar, or one of the candidate’s own proposed specialty courses—In every case, people just say the wrong thing. Sometimes it’s too much information, sometimes it’s too little. It’s almost always incomplete.

So, here, Dear Readers, is the basic rule of describing a course:

1. title and main takeaway point

2. textbook/s (if low undergrad) or readings (if high undergrad/grad) with brief explanation/justification

3.  Broad organization of the course, with about 3 “landmarks”

4. examples of innovative assignments

5. Conclusion


Let me describe each point in more detail.

Title: The title should be engaging, and have appeal to students. The course should be carefully calculated to appeal to the department and the job. Just today I was speaking with a Renaissance specialist applying to a Renaissance job, whose first proposed course,, a fascinating course indeed, included readings by Don Delillo. Now, she may well, after being hired, get to teach such a course. But at the interview stage? No. The course she proposes, in the brief 20 minutes that she has in the conference interview, must relate directly to the Renaissance.

After the title, one to two sentences will describe the topic of the course in the context of the discipline, IF it is a new course, and not one already on the books.  If the course is one on the books, then no explanation of it is necessary.

Example: I would like to teach a course called “Japan Imagined.” It will explore representations of Japan in Western accounts from the 17th century to the present, focusing on shifts that accompany Japan’s changing political and economic status vis-a-vis the West.

Takeaway Point: One sentence will describe the point that you want students to take away from the course.

Example: The point I want students to take away is that “Japan,” and by extension any country, is not a fixed and unchanging entity, but rather a set of representations that are constantly shifting and adapting to reflect economic and political conditions and anxieties.

Textbook/Readings: This is the part that almost everyone forgets. Why, I don’t know. Isn’t it obvious that you need to include the readings as a major element of a course? Anyway, briefly sketch the major readings in one to two sentences.

Example: We’ll read  John Dower’s War Without Mercy, and Anne Allison’s Millenial Monsters, to get a sense of the scholarship on the politics of representation in a context in which Japan actively produces its own global self-representations, and I’ll have students read primary documents such as Portuguese explorer accounts, Commodore Perry’s journal, and WWII propaganda.

Broad Organization of the Course with “Landmarks”:  You will quickly, in one-two sentences, sketch the organization of the course, beginning–>middle–>end.  This is NOT an exhaustive week by week, topic by topic description of the entire course, which will bore your listeners to tears.

Example:  We will start with Portuguese explorers and move through Commodore Perry and the American “opening” of Japan, WWII and the Occupation, and Japan’s rise in the 1980s, ending with the current global dominance of Japanese anime, manga, and video gaming systems.

Assignment: One sentence on a memorable assignment—NOT small groups, or research papers, or class discussion, but something really MEMORABLE.

Example: I have the students play video games such as Tekken or Pokemon and do an in-class demonstration of the Japanese cultural and linguistic elements in each game, and report on the ways that these elements are discussed in the internet discussion boards devoted to the games.

Conclusion:  One sentence that links the course to the wider course catalog, curriculum, or departmental agenda. This proves that you think like a colleague who understands that anything you teach must work within a larger curricular logic.

Example:  In this way students gain a foundation in contemporary Japanese history and Japan’s image vis-a-vis the West that they can carry forward with them into subsequent courses in the major.

In sum, in seven brief sentences you will summarize the course in a dynamic, memorable way, anticipating major questions and leaving no gaps:

“I would like to teach a course called “Japan Imagined.” It will explore representations of Japan in Western accounts from the 17th century to the present, focusing on the shifts that accompany Japan’s changing political and economic status vis-a-vis the West. The point I want students to take away is that “Japan,” and by extension any country, is not a fixed and unchanging entity, but rather a set of representations that are constantly shifting and adapting to reflect economic and political conditions and anxieties. We’ll read  John Dower’s War Without Mercy, and Anne Allison’s Millenial Monsters, to get a sense of the scholarship on the politics of representation in a context in which Japan actively produces its own global self-representations, and I’ll have students read primary documents such as Portuguese explorer accounts, Commodore Perry’s journal, and WWII propaganda.  The course will start with Portuguese explorers and move through Commodore Perry and the American “opening” of Japan, WWII and the Occupation, and Japan’s rise in the 1980s, and end with the current global dominance of Japanese anime, manga, and video gaming systems. In the class, I have the students play video games such as Tekken or Pokemon, do an in-class demonstration of the Japanese cultural and linguistic elements in each game, and report on the ways that these elements are discussed in the internet discussion boards devoted to the games.In this way students gain a foundation in contemporary Japanese history and Japan’s image vis-a-vis the West that they can carry forward with them into subsequent courses in the major.”


The Unknown and Unknowable of the Job Market

Today’s post is a guest post from a reader who shall remain anonymous.  She shares her experiences with what she calls the “Unknown and Unknowable” aspects of the job search.  Her message is invaluable:  stay loose, flexible, and open to sudden reversals of fortune.  There are things you can control, and then there are things you can’t–and sometimes those turn out to be the most important.


After two years on the job market, I accepted my dream job:  a tenure-track position in an interdisciplinary college at a big research university.  I was recruited for a search committee not long after stepping on campus and, hardly recovered from what I’d been calling “Job Market PTSD” [KK:  I happen to have a post by this very name!], I was re-immersed in the process—albeit from the other side.  Turning a critical eye over the past few months to my—and now others’—tactics, approaches, and experiences on the job market, I’ve realized that—and rightly so—much of the information and advice that we job-seekers receive focuses on how tilt the market’s myriad factors in our favor.  For example, we work from the first year in graduate school to stack a stellar CV; we spend time cultivating the most flattering recommenders; we slave to craft the perfect job letter; we rehearse our job talks and interview answers with anyone willing to listen, until they are memorized but appear unrehearsed; we polish writing samples down to the footnote; we scour the aisles at Nordstrom Rack for the perfect Tahari suit, marked down to fit our pauper budgets; and we strive to master the fine art of professional-yet-personal hair and make-up.

Of course, with the stakes this high, it’s only natural to try to control what we perceive to be controllable.  What’s missing from this, I think (and, as if we needed one more thing to worry about), is an awareness of and preparation for what my CrossFit coaches would call “the UNKNOWN and the UNKNOWABLE”.  In this “sport of fitness”, an athlete has to be ready for whatever (those seemingly sadistic) judges dream up—scaling walls, carrying sandbags, throwing down burpees, running, lunging, and jumping rope—just as you have to be ready for any question, talk scenario, or interview setting the committees throw at you while on the market.

Let me give you two examples of the unknown and unknowable from my own job hunt last year.

First:  after what I thought was a mediocre-at-best phone interview, I was cut from the pool for what I’d imagined would be a dream job.  Already experiencing moderate success during the second year on the job market, I was disappointed but put the rejection behind me, moving on to prep for the other interviews that were beginning to dot the calendar.  Just after the holidays, however, I received an email from the search chair apologizing for “the confusion” and inviting me to campus.  I hardly stopped to question the reversal, and seized the opportunity.  A few weeks later I went to campus, where I was charmed by the job, the university, and my potential colleagues.  I went home with my fingers crossed and two weeks later I accepted their offer.

I haven’t spent much time since wondering about the reversal of fortune, and accepted at face value what has been explained to me as an “error”.  What was strange about this experience, however, is that it happened to me twice during the last application cycle:  the day after accepting my current position, I received another campus invite in a search from which I had previously been cut following a conference interview.

I raise these examples not to suggest that the “thanks but no thanks; wait, but yes, please” phenomena is something to keep fingers crossed for, but as an example of the ways in which we need to be open and flexible on the job market—ready for the unknown and the unknowable.  Given the insecurity of the market, it would be easy to get bitter following rejections, or to take a rejection personally, rather than as a symptom of much larger forces at play.  While at the time I did allow myself to wonder—as any insecure academic is prone to do—whether the invitation was a mistake, I am glad I didn’t dwell too much on it.  As a result of some unknown and unknowable factors, I am now firmly invested in my dream job, and I feel confident that we are all happy things worked out the way they did.

Here’s another example of the role of the “unknown and the unknowable”, and of the virtues of being open to change and chance on the job market:  In between the campus visit described above and receiving my offer, I visited three other campuses.  One was a small school in the south with which I had had what I can only describe as an awesome conference interview:  Things had gone so well, in fact, that the search chair gave me a fist bump!  Subsequent conversations with the department chair had been encouraging, and I was excited about the unique aspects of the job at this particular university.

By the time the bread arrived at the first night’s dinner, however, it seemed that everything that could go wrong, was:  a faculty member knocked my graduate school and training; I wasn’t getting the sarcasm and inside jokes of the faculty members; the newest junior faculty confessed that he routinely fainted from over-work and exhaustion; and, just when I was considering breaking my no-wine-at-dinner rule to take the quickly-building edge off, I learned it was a dry town.  Ready for a fresh start the next morning, I approached the morning meetings with optimism, spirits rising after conversations with fantastic potential colleagues.  While on the town tour I was determined not to let rumors of local homophobia get me down, but I deflated a bit upon our return when a junior faculty divulged that there was a homicidal student loose on campus.   Then, just as I was preparing to give my job talk, I learned that my increasingly-anticipated evening flight out was cancelled indefinitely, due to a blizzard that had begun to blanket the Midwest.  By dinner, I’d learned that the earliest I’d be leaving was three days later.  With another candidate slated to come in, and work that they needed to accomplish in the interim, it wasn’t an ideal situation for the university’s faculty either.

After discussions with the department chair, we determined I had two choices:  retreat to the guest house to watch Netflix and order in for the next three days (a tempting proposition, given how little I’d relaxed in the last few months), which would allow me to stay out of the hair of the search committee and avoid risking unfairly prejudicing myself with the committee (either positively or negatively).  Or, I would cowgirl up and embrace department- and university-life as much as possible during my extended stay.

 Ultimately, it wasn’t really a choice:  I decided to take the department up on their hospitality.  I had breakfast at a local greasy spoon with a lovely faculty member I hadn’t met in the previous two days; I poked around the campus and library; the Chair took me for a tasty lunch and to a big box bookstore to buy a few novels for my evenings at the guest house; I attended two classes, and got a really good sense of the students I’d be teaching; a faculty member invited me to dinner at his home, where I met his lovely wife and sweet children; I got a tour of the nearby city, learned a lot about its history, saw some important landmarks, and had some great ethnic food; had a fantastic dinner with two potential colleagues, both of whom I learned share many of my hobbies; and I still had plenty of time to watch Netflix and do some leisure reading.

By the time my flight took off three days later, I had begun to look at the job, town, and faculty in a whole new light.  The three extra days, though unexpected, offered me a lens on the opportunity that I never would have had if I had left after the scheduled 24 hours.  And, though we’ll never know for sure (I withdrew from the search before an offer was extended to accept my current position), I have several reasons to believe I would have received an offer.

What I hope these two examples show is that there is so much out there beyond our control—so many unimaginable scenarios and unanticipated factors—that it helps to remain open and ready for the unknown:  for the chances, changes, and opportunities, the happy coincidences and serendipities, that are inherent to any process like this.  We should do what we can—by following the advice of our mentors and prepping the best way we know how—to put ourselves in a position in which we are ready, when it does occur, for the unknown and the unknowable.