A constant tension in my work at The Professor Is In is the awkward balance between the free content that I provide on the blog, and the fee-based services I charge money for. From the start there has been a chorus of detractors who decry the fact that I run a business and make a living from helping job-seekers, the idea being, I think, that I am exploiting their desperation, or taking advantage of an already disadvantaged population.
I know this, and I basically get the position, but I don’t agree with it. It is OK to pay a consultant to help you master a skill or overcome a challenge, or pay an editor to improve your writing. In addition to the volumes of free information I gladly provide–which countless readers write to tell me they have used to overhaul their materials, rock the interview, and negotiate offers without paying me a cent — I also offer the Job Seeker Support Fund to allow those who are desperate circumstances to still work with me at extremely reduced rates. All of my rates are carefully considered to reflect the value of my services in light of the limited financial circumstances of my clientele. I work hard never to turn anyone away for inability to pay.
Nevertheless, the tension remains, and I try always to be sensitive to it.
Well, yesterday I kind of f**cked up. It happened in a comment I made to Todd K. Platts’ essay on his failure to find a tenure track job.
A little background. I’ve never talked about this publicly, but whenever I come across a story in a major venue like the Chronicle or IHE by a job seeker about their struggles on the job market, I contact the writer privately to offer a bit of free help. I do this because I appreciate the courage it takes to come forward with one’s job market disappointments, and I want to extend a hand to help. I call it my “taking one for the team” assistance. I offer to edit one or two job documents for free with no strings attached.
I’ve always done that privately, but in Todd K. Platt’s case, I decided to do it publicly. This happened because when I googled his name to find his email address to get in touch, and clicked through to his academia.edu site, I landed on his Teaching Statement for job market applications. “Oh, look at that,” I thought, and proceeded to read it. It had some serious problems. That inspired me to look at his CV, which had much larger problems. So, instead of quietly proceeding with my email, I decided it would be a good idea to provide this feedback on the comment thread, and offer my help there, publicly, so that readers in general might benefit. In hindsight, especially to this heartfelt and very personal essay: really, Karen?
I included my name and business name so that he would know who I was and why he might want to follow up with me. I thought my wording made it clear that I was offering the help for free.
Well, not so much. It looks like I am, in fact, leaping on the desperation of a job seeker to extract profit. In fact, a couple people castigated me for using someone’s pain and suffering to “shill my wares.”
Looking at the wording, I see why, and wish I’d taken more care.
I know why I didn’t. It was exasperation. I find it tremendously frustrating that so many unsuccessful job seekers look at their record, and look at their unsuccessful outcome, and complain about the unfairness of it all—-without taking a moment to look at their body of writing that mediates the two: the application documents themselves.
In my webinar on Grant-Writing yesterday, I told participants “you have your research profile, and you have the grant outcome you’re seeking, but what too many people overlook is the intermediate step, which is the painstaking work you must do to use your writing to articulate the research profile into language that motivates the funder to award you the money. Too many people think that this writing can be tossed off in a day or two, because the research ‘speaks for itself.’ It doesn’t.”
A grant application or a set of job documents requires hours and hours of painstaking, exhausting, excruciating work. In the current economy there is no space for slipshod, sloppy, poorly-conceived or executed writing in these documents. Somehow, though, applicants forget that (and in addition are rarely told or assisted in it by advisors) and believe that all the years of work in their Ph.D. programs will simply automatically translate into the outcomes they desire, with no sustained critical effort on their part to do the translation of it in language the funder/search committee will respect and respond to.
That interim place of translation is what The Professor Is In occupies. It’s the space I love, and the space I’m obsessed with. I have been since I was still a Ph.D. student leading my very first “job market workshop” for my crew of peers in my graduate program at the University of Hawai’i, after I scored my tenure track job offer. I’ve been obsessed with this work for 18 years!
Some dismiss this attention to the writing as an anal, OCD preoccupation with meaningless detail. It isn’t. The space of translation between the record and the outcome is a space of tremendous creativity and meaning — it is a kind of self-making — and it deserves a deep care and attention. And so I find myself frustrated when writer after writer complains of unfair outcomes without giving any attention to the quality of their translation work in their application materials.
Of course it goes without saying that the job market in the broadest sense is terribly, patently unfair, in that a whole generation of Ph.D.s has been trained for jobs that no longer exist, and misled about that fact. But that doesn’t mean that every single outcome is uniformly unfair, or mysterious, or inexplicable, or that every single application outcome is nothing more than a “crap shoot,” in the common idiom of post-academic critique. In fact, there is a correlation between the quality of job documents and the outcome. It is not a perfect correlation, and it is not a correlation that overcomes the basic fact of evaporating tenure track jobs and the wholesale adjunctification of the academy. But it is a correlation nonetheless.
And so, exasperated, I tossed off a comment without my usual care. And it was a mistake. I do look kind of like a dick (as one commenter put it), and I really regret it. I followed up with an explanation, but I suppose the damage is done. I hope this post explains a little bit of how I ended up there, looking exactly like what I work so hard not to.