So, how was your week?
As you probably know, mine was completely surreal. My goodbye lament quickly overloaded the capacity of my website, and led to this, this, this, and this. My DMs and email inbox have been flooded with responses and inquiries in addition to all the comments on the pieces themselves and around Facebook and Twitter. I’ve heard from so many who are in my situation, have been in my situation, and perhaps most painfully, know they’ll be in my situation soon, as well as people in tenure-track jobs, people in publishing, people in journalism, and people who have no connection to academia but read what I wrote and were moved in some way.
I want to follow up with so many of you, but it’s going to take me some time, not just because I’ve received hundreds of messages, but because the whole experience has been emotionally overwhelming: the outpouring of grief, frustration, and rage I’ve seen in public and private, the HR horror stories you’ve sent me, the supportive messages from other quit-lit stars, and the truly strange experience of my ideas and my life being discussed by thousands of people who didn’t know me. I punched academia right in the feels, and academia punched back.
One thing that has not been a problem for me is the unsurprising nastiness of people on the internet. I approved all of the rude comments people left on the original piece because I think it’s important to know what the reactions were. When it got to IHE and the Chronicle, the angry comments were either willfully obtuse about what I had argued or were directed at an imagined version of me that bore so little resemblance to reality as to be comical. So if you were worried about my mental health in that area, don’t be.
If you are one of the many who told me I was a privileged, entitled academic/snowflake who needs to learn about The Market, and you imagined I’d never heard or considered these arguments before:
Those comments aside, I did get certain questions and comments over and over, and I thought I’d take some time to respond here, just in case anyone who saw the original post sees this one too. I know lots of people who are unfamiliar with academia read my original piece too, so if I use terms in here that are confusing, leave a comment and I’ll try to clarify.
Why would you give up on the job market after such a short time? Only three cycles?
There are several answers to this because there are several assumptions that seem to feed into the question. Some people seemed to think that three cycles wasn’t enough to know for sure that I’d never get hired, and that I’d screwed myself out of a position by giving up so early. Some seemed to think that it was presumptuous of me to think I’d get a job so quickly, and that I should have waited longer and paid more dues.
Three cycles was, for me, enough to know. I know that each year you are out of grad school but not in a TT position, you are regarded (incorrectly) as a bit more stale, and I suppose maybe there’s an idea that if you haven’t gotten a job already, there are good reasons, so you become increasingly unhireable. People do get jobs at that point, but despite conventional wisdom, we have evidence that the time you’re most likely to get a job is early – even when you’re ABD.
In light of that, and despite having had a really good year in 2017 and feeling like I was running on all intellectual cylinders, I decided it was time. Staying in would have meant that I would not have started a TT job, even if I got one, till the fall of 2019. In between now and then, I’d have to find another teaching job, or two, or five, earn very little, probably go without benefits, all while continuing to spend money to do research and go to conferences. Staying in the game is expensive, unstable, and usually doesn’t lead to the results we hope it will.
But don’t you understand The Market!?
I mean, I’m a historian, so I understand that there’s no unchanging Magic 8 ball that helps us make economic decisions about the future, and even if there were, humans are not rational economic actors. That’s not a thing. My training as a historian encourages me to assess evidence and understand people, rather than rush to judgment. It’s one of the reasons I like the field I chose. In this case, I’m choosing to extend to myself the empathy I’d extend to someone in the past.
For many – hello, IHE comment section regulars! – this “don’t you know how supply and demand works” argument is a familiar and oft-used cudgel, and not one that indicates those wielding it have ever read much Adam Smith. If you are genuinely curious, though, Prof. Kate Antonova, historian of Russia and holder of a sacred blue check mark, has laid a lot of it out in an excellent thread right here:
PSA to inhabitants of comments sections: the problem with the academic job market is not supply & demand! Enrollments & therefore demand for instructors is steady overall. The problem is that 75% of instructors are contingent, paid poverty wages w no benefits on short contracts.
— Dr. Kate Antonova (@kpanyc) February 18, 2018
Her analysis and the information in this 2016 piece put out by the American Historical Association provide the context for making sense of my particular experience. I started my MA in the fall of 2006 and my PhD in the fall of 2008, then defended my PhD in December 2015. Take a minute and think about the economic changes the U.S. experienced over that time period, and how many of them you could have predicted in the fall of 2005, when I was applying to graduate school.
Now take a minute and find my span on this chart.
Why are you blaming tenure track professors? We can’t do anything either!
I’m not blaming tenure track or tenured professors. I wasn’t even trying to make them feel bad, or even trying to get them to fix the problem. I was, however, asking them to consider something that they have the power to avoid considering. They may not have all the power they want, but they have more power than lots of vulnerable scholars.
If you felt attacked by my piece, or by the follow-up interview, and immediately sought out ways to explain why I personally didn’t get a job, that may be because you disagreed with my contention that the loss of me and thousands of other scholars is a loss to the field. Or maybe you just didn’t think I was much of a loss. Maybe you didn’t disagree with the contention that there’s significant loss, but still found yourself searching for ways to make this my fault and the provost’s fault; it’s a bad system and we’re all just cogs but I could have at least tried harder and been a better cog.
I understand that it’s less risky for you to punch down, but maybe consider what it would mean to punch up instead? In a part of the interview with the Chronicle that didn’t get included, I argued that we, as a discipline, either think it’s possible for people to change systems and institutions, or we think it isn’t. We seem to have one standard for the agency of the people we study and another for ourselves. I just thought maybe we could imagine something better, even if it’s hard to know how to make it happen. But imagining something better requires accepting all the ways that what we have is not good. That might mean acknowledging that what happened to me was not good, even if you think my project was dumb and I shouldn’t have gotten a job anyway.
Why didn’t you talk about the role of administrators and funding cuts to state institutions and federal grant programs?
Those things were, as they say, outside the scope of the project. If you read my piece in the Chronicle, it’s worth reading the original on my blog, and considering, as I’d ask my students, who the intended audience originally was.
I’m not denying those things are important, but I have to say, when a reporter from the Chronicle asked me whether advising could fix the problem, I managed to give a response that pulled on a lot of threads and refused to accept the idea that there was a simple answer. I didn’t manage to pull on all the threads, but this is a pretty good depiction of what I looked like on the phone trying to explain why fixing academia was hard.
I’m sorry I didn’t manage to talk about all of the things that are making academia a mess. I missed some of the threads. But if you’re mad I didn’t talk about other things because talking about those other things would mean not talking about the things people in your position could actually do, then that’s a thing you want to think about.
Aren’t you just a privileged academic? Do you even know what work is?
Ok, I'm not done ranting yet this morning. This conventional wisdom that academics are "elite"? Like most conventional wisdom, it is so much bullshit.
— Dr. Kate Antonova (@kpanyc) February 18, 2018
I shouldn’t have to do this, but apparently it’s necessary: I grew up working class. I have been a member of three unions in my life, one of which I helped organize. I earn a salary that places me solidly in the working class nationally, which means quite firmly in the working class in Connecticut. I wear a lot of tweed, but you can get tweed at the Goodwill.
Maybe you should consider that you didn’t get a job because you’re not passionate enough about your work. If you were more passionate, you would keep publishing even if you didn’t get paid.
You need to get over yourself and stop thinking that teaching at an R1 is the only acceptable career.
I have never had any desire to teach at an R1. There might be graduate students and early career scholars in my field who approach the job market crying “R1 or Bust!” but I have never met one.
Why haven’t you applied for jobs at community colleges/Catholic colleges/women’s colleges?
A couple of really different assumptions seem to be at the root of these questions. To begin with, it’s important to know that college professors don’t just send their resumes everywhere. Colleges and universities post ads for very specific positions, asking for people with specific fields of study, people with specific skills that will allow them to taken on additional duties, and people at specific points in their careers. As a scholar of US history, specializing in the history of women and religion in the 19th century but with the ability to teach a much wider variety of broad and focused courses, many of which I’d already taught, I applied for almost every full-time TT job I could reasonably qualify for, skipping a couple of ads for positions at very elite universities.
Applying for every full time TT job I could reasonably qualify for meant that I applied to fewer than ten jobs this year. I imagine each of those jobs had between 50 and 300 applicants. I applied to Catholic colleges. I have applied to women’s colleges. I would have loved to teach at those places.
Community college jobs are just as difficult to get, and even harder to find because they’re not advertised in consistent ways. Even at the start of my grad degree, they were hard to get. The days when a PhD would set you apart at a community college are long gone, if they were ever really there. I did see a few that I could apply for, but the teaching loads were so high and salaries so low that I made the decision they were not worth moving halfway across the country for.
These queries, as well as the comments about scholars needing to get over their obsession with teaching at an R1, are all rooted in a desire to make this about the individual – about me – rather than about the system. I know many people made suggestions in good faith, because they wanted there to be possibilities I hadn’t considered yet.
But there were fewer than ten full time TT jobs I could apply for this year. Even if you think I didn’t get a job because you read my CV and think I just wasn’t good enough, there’s no way to get around the fact that this isn’t about individuals, it’s about the system itself.
Why haven’t you applied for jobs in other countries?
I have, though not this cycle. But this isn’t a uniquely American problem, so leaving the U.S. isn’t a magic fix. Also, let’s just stop and consider that someone in my position isn’t considered dedicated enough or persistent enough if they have been unwilling to apply for jobs in Dubai or China.
Why don’t you want to teach high school? Don’t you value teaching?
If you have never heard of me before you read this piece, you can be forgiven for assuming that I am more concerned with losing the research aspect of my job, since that’s what my piece emphasized. But at least half of the things I’ve written in this space are about teaching, and I regularly contribute to Teaching US History, a blog on college pedagogy. I’m really into teaching.
I am not certified to teach public high school, nor should I be, because public high school teachers and college professors have very different training and responsibilities. I couldn’t just fall into that job, contrary to what poorly-conceptualized sitcoms would suggest.
Many people have pointed out that there’s the option of teaching in a private school, which wouldn’t have the same certification requirements. Some commenters seem to think this would be super easy because I’m in the Northeast, where we have so many. You know what we also have a lot of in the Northeast? People in the same position as I am who are looking for jobs.
And yeah, I’m aware of the existence of private schools. I grew up a couple of miles from Hotchkiss, I sang at Kent, I filled in the women’s roles in musicals at Salisbury, I competed against kids from Norwich Free Academy and Choate and Loomis and all the rest. I know this world because I grew up a “townie.” And because I know that world, I still call them private schools, not independent schools, because the salient fact about them to me is that they are private, set apart from the public school system. I have friends from grad school who teach in schools like this, and they do great work and love what they do there. But even if I were inclined to teach high school, I’d have a very hard time working in many of these places.
As soon as I told people what had happened to me, lots of people said I should look into teaching high school. But when my friend Alex asked about it, and I responded “I don’t really want to, but…,” she said “If you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to.” And that’s actually enough. It’s not an issue of certification or ideology or anything else, when it comes down to it. I don’t want to do it because I don’t think it’s for me.
Don’t you realize there are other ways to be a historian? Don’t you know you can do other things with a PhD? What about public history?
I saw a lot of this in academic comment sections where people seemed to have read excerpts of the piece, read it poorly, or are from very different academic fields. Lots of people didn’t agree that a) the history PhD is still primarily designed to produce professors and b) that most people who get history PhDs want to be professors. I think they’re incorrect, but fair enough.
The thing that bothers me more, though, is the way some academic commenters seem to think “public history” is just some kind of field you can cruise into from the field I’m in. I worked for NPS as a historian before grad school; it’s actually why I came to grad school. But it’s not the same. It’s really pretty gross to think that I could just rock up at a historic house and get a job with little experience in the field and no specific training in museum studies or public history.
This suggestion, just like the suggestion that I teach high school, is often framed in a way that implies I think too much of myself to “lower” myself to these jobs. That these suggestions could be made so glibly suggests that many people don’t think enough of these jobs to imagine that there might be specialized skills needed to do them.
Again, other people made this suggestion in good faith, and I appreciate that so many think I could use my talents in another field. The problem is that public history has its own issues with paying people for their skilled work.
What did you expect when you went into history instead of a STEM field?
Setting aside the plentiful comments on the piece and emails in my inbox from people in STEM fields who have gone through exactly what I’m going through, you could just google “postdoc crisis” and see that this isn’t just a humanities issue. Here, you don’t even have to google it: “So Many Research Scientists, So Few Openings As Professors.”
Obviously this is because you are a radical gender theorist. Aren’t we better off without you ruining everything?
I mean, I’m not a radical gender theorist, but sure, you want to point to the world today and say the thing we need to think less about is gender? Congratulations, you’re the newest New York Times opinion writer.
Obviously this is because you chose to write about gender. Wouldn’t you have been fine if you’d picked a topic the market valued?
Oddly enough, it’s the combination of women and Catholicism that I believe makes my work harder to market in academic circles, as I’ve discussed here. But again, it’s not just that I couldn’t get a TT job. It’s that there aren’t very many of them at all. Lots of people study gender, and lots of people don’t, and lots from both categories end up without a TT job.
So you didn’t get tenure, big deal. Stop whining about it.
If nothing else, the number of replies like this that I got reveal that lots of people have room to grow when it comes to close, careful reading. Wouldn’t it be awesome if we had people who knew how to teach that?
You didn’t have a Plan B and that was stupid. What did you think would happen?
So, when a reporter from IHE asked me what I was going to do after my teaching contract ended, I told her that I had lots of ideas about what I might do, but that I didn’t know what I would be doing, and I was scared because I don’t have a job lined up. She summarized that in the article as me not having a Plan B. I think those are two different things.
But lots of people seem to think that I should have been cultivating a side gig the whole time. All I can say is that the time required to do Plan A as well as I could was significant enough, and Plan A was what I wanted to do, so I tried to do it as well as I could until I couldn’t do it anymore.
How dare you ask us to buy you a coffee?
I only asked you to do it if my writing had been meaningful; I didn’t charge you a fee to read. And even though my piece was explicitly about wanting to be valued for my writing, I felt awkward putting the Ko-fi link in and even more awkward when people clicked through.
I couldn’t process, and still can’t, that anyone found my writing that meaningful. No matter how much you value your own skills, when the world around you devalues those skills constantly, you internalize some of it.
Didn’t you just write this hoping someone would feel sorry for you and give you a tenure track job?
[Speaking of really bad depictions of academic life on TV…]
You said your feelings aren’t subject to peer-review, but I think you need to know that your feelings are wrong.