a note on the academic job search

image of card with due date typed at top and two lines down the center, green stamp in upper left that reads "Faculty June 8 - 1970." Stamp is crossed out with one diagonal red line.
the borrowing slip for The Midnight Bell, a novel I read & wrote about in my exams that was stored off-site and (possibly) hasn’t been checked out since 1970.

Recently I posted a Twitter comment about how I hate the term “job market.” It feels, for lack of a better word, icky, calling to mind the little piggy that goes to market in the nursery rhyme. I always imagined that market in that instance meant a grocery store, as though the piggy was off to find fresh produce for a picnic with his friends. In reality, market in that case means the slaughterhouse (a fact I also learned via Twitter).

Disturbing childhood revelation aside, it’s fitting that such an innocent-seeming word captures the regular horrors of looking for an academic job. No one I know “on the market” ever says positive things: it’s a lot of self-care talk and battle stories. I don’t want to obscure the horror too many talented folks face trying to find a job in a broken market, but I do want to find another metaphor, one that does less to divide us from those who are on- or off-market.

When I brought up my search for different metaphors, both silly and serious, to my dissertation director, she laughed (not unkindly).

Why can’t you just call it looking for a job?” she said.

At that moment, I didn’t have a good answer, beyond a general feeling of unsettledness. “Looking for a job” doesn’t capture the physic, physical, material reality of the academic job search. In my search for a new metaphor, I was really searching for language that would capture the fear, the anxiety, the reality of our broken system. I wanted something that I could wrap myself in, a phrase reassuring to me because it could testify to the difficulty too many face. “Looking for a job” obscures the reality that looking implies—that there are things to look at, to look for. I need words that honor the reality that the job might not ever happen, might not materialize, might not be found, no matter how much looking I or others do.

I settled, somewhat jokingly, on “going into academic circulation.” But the more I think about that phrase, the more I like it. Like a library book, I am ever hopeful someone will find me in the stacks, perhaps a bit surprised and elated at the discovery. There’s also a chance I will languish, my artful cover or my back blurb not enticing enough to catch someone’s eye. There’s a safety, too, embedded in the word circulation— a word OED traces throughout history and describes as generally making a circuit before returning again “into itself.” My work does not disappear if market forces demand otherwise; instead I circulate back into myself, whole instead of broken.

Circulation also brings up connection; there’s a network of people circulating job ads, news, support. If we start to think about jobs not as a market, where we compete for attention and money, but as a site for circulation, how might our metaphor help shape a new reality? It won’t fix the systemic problems, certainly, but it could help us imagine new futures.

Even if I never circulate beyond the walls of my own academic library, my work still exists. Just because a book isn’t checked out doesn’t mean it hasn’t been read or valued. Perhaps its circulation pattern takes time to locate, meanwhile leaving behind traces, marks that others can still find and amplify. This metaphor is my refusal to let a market dictate worth, just as the worth of a book cannot be dictated by the number of lines filled in its checkout card.

Ornate bookplate with swirls and insignia, reads University of Cincinnati Library, image of building on campus, below image reads Charles Phelps Taft Memorial Fund.
an ornate library bookplate from the same copy of The Midnight Bell.

dissertation writing in a pandemic

some thoughts

It has been nearly a year since I updated this blog with anything, and wow has a lot changed in that time frame. I passed my comprehensive exams with high marks all around (whew!) and I won a teaching award at the end of the spring 2020 semester. That award means more to me than the exams; to know that my student(s) nominated me as the world crumbled around us due to the Covid-19 pandemic continues to fuel my current work. As a new semester begins, and I begin work on my dissertation in earnest, I thought I would share some of my thoughts on what writing looks and feels like right now.

My days were once filled with school: moving from classroom to office, checking in with friends and faculty, going to the rec center and browsing the stacks at the library. Since March, however, I have done none of those things. My time has been spent traversing my apartment in circles, shoulder in smooch like the narrator of Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-paper.” Unlike her, however, the writing has not come. The deep, desperate desire to get words onto the page (particularly after exams) dissipated into nothingness. I could blame anxiety. Or depression. Or any number of other things that have gone wrong (hello, regular migraines). However, I realized today (quite literally today), that part of writing a dissertation, pandemic or not, is simply learning how to write for a living as an academic.

Two people in the last week have made some mention to me that no one reads dissertations. Perhaps that isn’t true for those contributing research in medicine or other science-y things, but it seems that humanities dissertations are exercises in brutal self-punishment and hoop-jumping for committee members. Maybe that’s true for some folks, but I can’t let that be true for me. Thankfully, I have supportive and thoughtful committee members, but I also know that defining the exigency of any project (outside my own interest in it) is a challenge. I need my work to contribute to the wider world in some meaningful way. If it isn’t, what’s the point?

That question—what’s the point?—has been the driving force behind my dissertation blues. Sort of like asking about the meaning of life, I’ve come to (mostly) accept no great answer will dawn on me some morning. So, where to go from here: what is the meaning of a dissertation if nobody is going to read it?

And that’s what finally brought me to start writing (as of today): the dissertation is a practice, a way of being, a wild exploration. It is an archive of thoughts, a gathering of disparate strands of material that have shaped my brain over 30 years. It is an exercise in gathering those strands, wandering down well-trodden paths where others have left markers, for many folks have written dissertations before me and many will after. Yet the practice itself will reveal something, even a kernel, of a new being.

plain spiral bound notebook with pencil notes indicating Dissertation, with keywords willful, materialism, sediment, affective, objects, hope, gathering, potential. Followed by abbreviated notes from Ahmed, Willful Subjects.
The proof the diss has begun! [with a big space for keywords + notes]

Writing while Researching, Researching while Writing

depiction of a library cart with my name
my very own research cart during a seminar at the BGSU Pop Culture Library in 2018.

Three(ish) weeks’ worth of updates

Almost a month after my first comprehensive exam readings post, and I’m finally back spewing words about my reading progress.

Of course, it’s taken me a month to realize why it’s so difficult to write consistently while reading and studying for exams. For one, it’s an amorphous, semi-lonely process, wherein I spend days at a time in my own head, conversing about ideas with the writers and characters and scholars of/in the books I’m reading. I am writing alongside these conversations but they are dashed off notes and fragments, marginalia scrawls, question marks and occasionally incoherent half-thoughts, ectoplasmic trailings of a possible dissertation idea.

All this brings me to a recent conversation from Rhet/Comp Research Methodologies, a class I’m auditing (and let me just say, auditing alongside this reading year has been my best decision so far). During a virtual conversation with scholar Brice Nordquist, we collectively asked for nitty-gritty tips on writing and researching during the dissertation process. His suggestion: write alongside the research. Write even if you don’t exactly know what you’re writing, because ultimately it will help in the long run, even if most ends up in the trash.

Write to help you think, to help you make sense of what’s swirling around in the brain cesspool, write to capture moments in the process that will be long forgotten by the end of it.

All of this was especially heartening to hear, in part because I am obviously terrible at writing alongside. Knowing that I’m not alone in finding the combination of writing/researching difficult, that in fact successful scholars also struggle with this, is reassuring.

I often forgot to use writing as a tool to think with, a tool to use alongside the research, not just as a tool to communicate with others. It’s good to work on this now, before the BIG DISS thing happens next year.

As for what I’ve discovered in the last three weeks, I’m going to make a quick hits list to wrap this post up, and then hopefully return next week with more cool anecdotes and ideas from this year of reading widely.

  • Marie Corelli’s Wormwood is the wild, absinthe-driven ride I hoped it would be. We get pages upon pages of murder as-it-happens, a visit to a morgue and a description of the bodies, and an all-around weird journey alongside the absinteur, Gaston. My favourite moment, though, is Heloïse’s takedown of Gaston, in which she yells: “The world is still open to you; but on her it is shut for ever. You may sin as she has sinned, without even the plea of an overwhelming passion to excuse you,—and society will not turn its back on you! But it will scorn her for the evil it endures in you and in all men! Such is humanity’s scant justice!” (Broadview edition, 220). A damn fine observation.
  • Patrick Brantlinger’s The Reading Lesson traces the effects of anxiety about mass literacy on novels like The Monk and Oliver Twist, among others from the 1790s-1890s. Most notable for me was his discussion of sensation novels, a form that makes reading corporeal. These works provoke anxiety precisely because they make contact with an “increasingly distant, unknown, and uncontrollable readership” (163-4).
  • Diane Fuss’s Sense of an Interior just astounded me. There’s almost too much to say, so I’ll just include this line from her coda: “The recurrent interplay of subject and object in the space of writing reminds us that if the writer’s interior is a memorial chamber, it is also a living archive” (214).
  • For that methodologies class I’m auditing, we’ve covered American by Paper by Kate Vieira and Brice Nordquist’s Literacy and Mobility: Complexity, Uncertainty, and Agency at the Nexus of High School and College. From a pedagogical perspective I enjoyed Nordquist’s work, especially for the on-the-ground data collection of riding alongside the students whose work he is examining. It puts that idea that we need to meet students where they’re at in stark relief. Vieira’s work is important, but I found myself wishing for more participant voices and more on the necessity of paper for immigrants in an ever-more-digitized world.
  • Feminism and Composition Studies: In Other Words, a collection edited by Susan C. Jarratt and Lynn Worsham, feels just as essential today as it must’ve in 1998. Highlights for me were essays by Eileen E. Schell on the “ethics of care” in the comp classroom, Christy Desmet’s on feminist jurisprudence and equity, and Nedra Reynolds on interruption as a feminist tool (#feministkilljoy). The overall composition of the collection, with response essays after each section of the book, makes me wonder why every text doesn’t practice that kind of reflection.

Till next week!