Thursday, February 12, 2009


Ask the Administrator: Interdisciplinarity and Risk Aversion

A new correspondent writes:

I will be graduating from a smaller campus of a Big 10 University this May with a degree in Interdisciplinary Humanities. I have some definite concerns as I enter into the job market, being especially considerate of our economic situation right now. From the time that I began grad school two years ago, I knew that I wanted to teach.I will happily take a job anywhere I can get one! My first concern is that my degree is actually in Humanities, even though I concentrated in English Lit and Rhet/Comp. ( I have 6 credits of Rhet/Comp Theory and 15 in Lit, along with some theory classes and the typical research methods/thesis writing courses). I know I will be applying to many different schools, from community colleges to state universities and smaller liberal arts colleges. Do I tailor my CV, and for that matter, my cover letter to fit in with each "type" of school? How do I emphasize my competence in the Rhet Comp/English Lit area, especially since I have no real teaching experience?

My second concern, if you want to call it that, is that my real desire is to teach at the local community college. Its actually where I started my schooling and I feel that without the mentoring and nurturing they gave me, I would not be where I am today. I feel my own personal pedagogy is in tune with the community college mission, and I really just want to give back to the place that gave me so much. I have actually been an English tutor there for the past 5 years, and have stayed in touch with many of my professors and the people on campus. If I am considered as a adjunct candidate, I know the first step is an interview with the English department. I think this would be the first time that I would be interviewed by someone I know. Perhaps this is a silly concern, but how do I balance that line between professionalism and showing them who I am as a person and future adjunct? Should I come prepared with a mini lesson, or assignment sheets? Being that they know me, I feel that there is an extra layer of expectation, but I could be wrong!

I hate to say this, but I don't like your chances at the full-time level.

Obviously, the academic job market in the evergreens has been bad for a while, and is dramatically worse this year than it has been in a long time. Not only are fewer searches authorized (or consummated once they've begun), but you'll increasingly be competing with people whose jobs evaporated out from under them. Even more applicants, even fewer jobs.

The less obvious aspect of that is the impact it often has (not always, but often) on hiring committees and hiring managers.

If you only have three or four applicants for a position, you can weigh carefully the relative merits of each. If you have hundreds of applicants for a position, that's not an option. Instead, most of the time the first task will be to winnow down the pile using a few 'bright line' criteria upfront. Tighten up the required qualifications, and don't look twice at anybody who doesn't meet them. In faculty positions at community colleges, that frequently means that phrases like “or a related discipline” drop out of position announcements. An English department might get enough applications from people with degrees in English that it could simply decide not to look at candidates with degrees in anything else. It also probably means that anybody without actual teaching experience is out of the question, since so many candidates will have already put their rookie mistakes behind them.

That's not an ideal solution, obviously, since too many square pegs can make for a pretty boring program. But it's a relatively rational use of a scarce resource – time – and it's legally defensible.

Off the top of my head, I'm not entirely sure what an interdisciplinary humanities degree fits. Is it history? English? Some sort of area studies? In a labor shortage, that might not matter much, but when you're competing for jobs with hundreds of other people, “I don't understand” can quickly become “Next!”

In terms of applying for jobs, higher ed is very different from most of the rest of the world. In the rest of the world, I'm told, it's largely about networking. Get your name out there, make a good impression, and sooner or later you'll catch a break.

In higher ed, openings are formally posted, and decisions are made by committee (and by layers above committees). Yes, some places still operate on the old shoot-from-the-hip style, but they're setting themselves up for some nasty lawsuits. It's such an employer's market in most areas that the risk of slowness is usually much less than the risk of litigation, so they go for the slow-and-careful method. That can sometimes become a fetish, but the initial impulse is institutionally rational.

(If you do get an interview, I'd try not to focus on prior familiarity. Yes, you may know some people and have rapport, but you'll still need to shine relative to others whose flaws they've never seen. An interview is a performance, and needs to be approached as such.)

Having taken a non-traditional route, I'd suggest figuring out your unique niche, and going for that. If you go for plain-vanilla English jobs, you'll be up against plenty of others whose degrees don't require explanation. Yes, lightning can strike, but I wouldn't call that a plan. On the other hand, if you can figure out what need you can fill uniquely and then gun for that, you'll have a leg up over all the more traditionally-labeled candidates. And in the meantime, get some teaching experience any way you can. In this market, a non-traditional master's and zero teaching experience isn't likely to cut it.

Good luck. You've got an uphill battle before you.

Wise and worldly readers – can you offer anything more optimistic?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

According to most accreditations, you can only teach subjects in which you have 18 graduate hours (included in or in addition to your masters degree). So if you want to teach comp and rhet, then you need to get additional grad courses. Figure out what you can teach (according to accreditation) and apply for those positions only.

Open your horizons and start looking online. You can teach online at any school around the country. Interviews are by phone conference and hiring is year round rather than based on traditional CC semester schedules.

You can get much-desired experience in teaching and course design right now that you can put on your CV. I explain how to do all this on my blog.

With online teaching and course design experience, you'll have an edge over the other candidates for teaching jobs.

Good luck!
A comment about "winnow[ing] down the pile using a few 'bright line' criteria upfront": Now, almost all CCs and a lot of universities use online application systems that via HR provide the search committees only with print-outs of what you enter into their queries. Some don't even pass along the resume attachment, or might only do so for candidates already selected for interviews.

In other words, even though the nature of hiring is to differentiate candidates, many systems are designed to make all candidates appear as similar as possible. It's legally safer, I guess.

That means that in many cases it will be almost impossible for a candidate to explain an Interdisciplinary Humanities degree or otherwise differentiate him/her self in a cover letter, etc.

I'm sorry I don't know of a strategy to get around that. But, my advice to a candidate without super-stellar experience is to find ways to get the things they need to communicate into those limited, rigid online systems.
I'm thinking that academia in general is not an option at this time, except at the adjunct level. A cross-disciplinary, hard-to-explain Masters in a very tight labor market filled with underemployed PhD's is just too much to overcome.

I'm not even as optimistic as VirtualProf about online teaching experience being enough to put you over the top. A lot of people have that kind of experience now. You should do it anyway, because you need to document at least some teaching, but you have more work to do.

If you can't succinctly and convincingly describe what makes you a unique (and uniquely desirable) candidate for a job, you are going to have a long, hard road ahead of you. Ask yourself: what have you learned in your Master's program, or elsewhere in your life, that truly distinguishes you? What sort of job does that unique qualification point you to?
This is not my field, so I don't know if those lit classes count as "english" or "humanities". At our college, the lit classes are taught in the humanities department but there are some 'writing about literature' classes in the english department. Getting your qualifications clear (a mentor at local CC can help with that) is your first step.

I do know that cross-discipline hires exist at many small colleges, and even our large one has a few faculty qualified to teach both a low-demand hum course and the high-demand comp courses.

My main point, however, would be that the writer should have no concern at all about seeking an adjunct position at the local CC where s/he already has a foot in the tutoring door. The process for hiring an adjunct is far less formal than hiring full time. We don't have sample lectures for those slots, but do observe the new person during the early part of the semester. Your local CC is the perfect place to get the experience you lack.

I will also add that some of our best faculty started at our CC, and use that to motivate their students that they can also succeed. Don't assume you will not be considered for an opening, if one ever shows up. Just prepare for the competition.
"Do I tailor my CV, and for that matter, my cover letter to fit in with each "type" of school?"

Yes! you should, in fact, tailor your cover letter to each school. Especially in a market like this, schools can be picky and hold out for the person they have in mind. If you can honestly make yourself sound like the person they're looking for, then that's to your advantage. Of course, figuring out what they're looking for can be tricky.

"Should I come prepared with a mini lesson, or assignment sheets? "

I don't have any experience with CCs, but generally schools will tell you what they want. I'd imagine that an English dept. at a CC is likely to have you pretend to teach a class. That said, it's also a good idea to have props ready if they can help you explain your approach to whatever it is that the school is expecting of you. In my case, as a chemist, that meant bringing printouts of papers and presentations so that I could show them pictures.
When I was going to CC, many moons ago, the honors program (and sometimes general courses) were sometimes coupled- English Comp and Humanities were a common pairing. For students, it was a way to get two gen eds done in one blow, with a bit of overlap between the classes and complementary scheduling.
Maybe my CC was the only one doing that, but I suspect you'd be well suited to teaching that sort of class. The biggest trouble is that those courses (particularly the honors flavor) tended to have no trouble at all finding professors.
You might consider looking at private high schools that offer "Humanities" as a way of combing history and english.

It is very tough out there. I am an anthropologist and there are too many of us and the first and easiest department cut in many places is anthro. It is combined with sociology or just melts away. Then you left with the accreditation problem already mentioned. I adjuncted for years at a school that had a broad general education series. Thank God, they called it "Cultural Foundations" I was able to squeeze in that way, the classic everygreen of English and History have a longer shelf live than interdisciplinary majors and even a social science like anthro with 100 year history.

I can't even qualify to teach English or history in the public schools because I would need more course hours in those subjects.

Not happy times.
Look, it's tough for everybody, that's true. But as a comp. lit. Ph.D. working in a tenure-track gig in a national lang./lit. dept., I am proof that there's potential fits out there.

You need to sell yourself as having 21 credits in English. Many people out there have their 16 grad credits in a mixture of subfields like lit. and pedagogy, and even lit. and theory could be considered different subfields. I am fairly sure that accreditation is flexible enough to recognize the more interdisciplinarity that one sees today. Many small schools are also seeking to fill "World Lit." course slots, too, but my sense from my own job search is that they're extremely competitive. Still, it's a potential plus to have this and general Humanities as options besides English, especially at small schools.

The thing that really raises my eyebrows, though, is the lack of real teaching experience. I'm at a SLAC, and we would never bring anyone to campus who had less than probably two years of teaching experience. It happens in science, but the other applicants for any full-time position in the humanities will have plenty of experience.

And to second others' opinions, tailor that letter carefully and individually. I've already served on two search committees, and a bad letter (like the ones with spelling errors, those that are too casual, those that show a clear misreading of the job ad, and those that include another school's name [!]) go to the bottom of the pile right away. It just screams "I don't really care enough about this job to bother taking the 15-30 minutes to alter my letter properly."

Good luck!
When I was an up-and-coming lad, the cc evergreen department I currently teach in was so humble it advertised as a job requirement a simple MA, no discipline specified.

My MA, not in the discipline I was applying to teach, got me in the door (past some snooty Ph.D!--we were not only humble back then, but very 'umble as well, with a major attitude emanating from the tech side....)

Now I could not even apply to teach the courses I've designed and taught for decades.

Happy me to be born back in the day.
I'm an English Department chair who has hired people with MA degrees into both adjunct and full-time positions. I'd find your lack of teaching experience more problematic than your degree, especially if you list courses taken on your CV. You should definitely try to use your existing contacts from your tutoring position to get some classroom teaching experience before you look seriously for a full-time position. I'm not convinced that online teaching will help you much -- better than nothing, probably, but not really competitive.

Ordinarily, people in your situation have been teaching assistants while in their graduate program. That means that they have not only classroom teaching experience but also some form of training -- whether a practicum course or something less formal. If you have the opportunity to participate in training along these lines, take advantage of it.
I agree about the teaching experience, in that it is your only shot at eventually landing a full-time position. I think you should look at the course catalog very carefully to see what classes you are qualified to teach both in English and outside of it.

Do they have global studies or other general humanities courses?

Up until last month, my dean was in charge both of humanities and English -- so, if you can figure out which dean(s) would be hiring you as an adjunct, you should present yourself as qualified to teach courses X, Y, Z.

In Minnesota there is an odd thing going on -- as far as I know, the University of Minnesota no longer produces MAs or Ph.D.s in "Humanities" as a discipline (they started phasing the program out in 1989 or so). BUT -- there are colleges out there (like mine) that have HUM courses --- and the contract specifies that to be qualified to teach the courses at least 18 hours of the degree -- or the degree itself -- be in "Humanities".

So -- if you can say you have an MA in "Humanities" and back it up with your transcript, you might have a shot at some jobs as folks retire.
Hi Everyone,

First I wanted to thank you all (including Dean Dad) for all your thoughtful comments. They have really helped me put some perspective into things.I also thought I might take this chance to clarify some things that you all have been asking about.

I thought this Interdisciplinary Humanities program would give me some different approaches to the teaching of English, and thats why I chose it over a traditional M.A. English program. I also thought the fact that the degree would be coming from a well respected name in Academia might also help in the job field. When I first applied for the program and talked with the then coordinator, they marketed this degree as an up and coming new way to the teaching of English, like they were on the cutting edge of things. I suppose with a little more research and thinking, I would have saw they were most likely wrong.

As far as my courses taken, I have really tailored them so that they are, with the exception of my Research and Methods Course and Thesis Writing, all English. I thought this would help define my area of expertise. When I graduate this spring, I will have 36 credits, 30 of them listed as ENGL.

I also wanted to clarify that at this time I am not looking for, nor do I expect a full time position anywhere. I expect to pay my dues as an adjunct and go back to get my Phd in English in a few years. Of course, if the opportunity arose that I was offered a full time position at a CC, I would consider myself extremely lucky and would jump on it.

I know a lot of you have mentioned teaching experience, and this is a bit of a sore spot for me in my program. If you cant tell already, I am a bit disillusioned with my program and very unhappy with the reality of the program vs. what they told me. Perhaps I was naive or gullible, but all I can say is that it has been a huge lesson learned and I have tried to make the most of it.

One of the other "highlights" of my program was that it offered a teaching internship where you were able to teach English Composition not at as TA, but as almost like an adjunct instructor where you would be developing your own syllabus, responsible for all grading, so on and so forth. I was told that any student who wanted to take advantage of this situation would be able to do it. I wanted to apply for it for the fall semester, so that just in case anything happened, I could fall back on the spring semester. My Comp/Rhet teacher told me I would be better off waiting until I had finished my second Rhet/Comp Theory class, and there would be no problems getting into the internship in the Spring. So that's what I did, and then all of a sudden it became a "competition" with only one slot open, and I unfortunately did not get it. This really destroyed me, but again I am trying to make the best of the situation.

But I don't think that all is lost in terms of teaching experience on my CV. Working at the tutoring center, 4 years ago I developed and implemented a ESL Summer and Reading Workshop that I have taught very much like a class, with students signing up for it very much aware that its not a seminar, rather a place where they can work on their skills over the summer instead of losing the English they have acquired (plus other cultural things and such). In order to do this class, I prepared syllabi and lesson plans because I thought this would not only be a great opportunity for the students to partake in a free class, but also for me to get some in front of the class experience. T
I know this isn't traditional teaching experience, but I feel highlighting it on my CV would be an asset, although I would love others opinion on it.

Again, I just wanted to thank you all, and although I may sound a bit disgruntled with my program, I would never bring that attitude into the classroom. It's a tabula rasa for me come May '09.
Be sure you don't say "would have saw" in your interview. :-)
I highly recommend that you immediately abandon your current course of action and get a job doing something else that uses your talents.

There will be no full-time employment available once you get the Ph.D. either. Anyone who has told you how bad the job market is is lying. It's far worse. Including me.
Punditus is not just right, but spectacularly right about job prospects. But I think what you really need is an alternate credential that will qualify you for a regular job, with a real salary and benefits. The most obvious solution would be to obtain credentials that would allow you to teach HS. This might, unfortunately, take two years - but in 5 years, you will be really happy you chose this path, as teacher salaries are generally decent (esp. when compared with most adjuncting gigs), come with good benefits, and - if you find you are still interested in obtaining a Ph.D, will provide the opportunity to work toward that degree.

Or obtain a degree or credential that will help you do something completely different - law school is one choice, if you think you might be interested in that...or something in an applied medical field, even.

Many schools also have programs designed to qualify liberal arts students to pursue math-intensive programs (which I would only do if you have some interest in math...).

The point I would empasize, though, is that just because you have focused your education on english/humanities courses so far, with an intention of teaching, does not mean that you must stay in that path. More easily than it probably seems, you can get out of that path and do something completely different. The ability to write and analyze writing is helpful in most jobs. The ability to teach (or, more generally, the ability to explain things to others) is also important in many jobs.

So, even assuming that you could get an adjuncting job right now, I wouldn't bother. Think hard about something else you wouldn't mind doing (even if you are eventually thinking of getting a PhD), and earn whatever degree or credential you need to do that. (And do it now, not after 5 years of adjuncting, or 10 years of adjucting and earning a Ph.D...)
This doesn't directly relate to the letter-writer's question, but as a current PhD student, I wanted to note something that's been bothering me for a while in advice to people like the letter-writer. (This is not directly a response to DeanDad, either, but more a comment on the comments.) Although of course we all need to be clear-headed about the dismal job prospects in an economy like this and the only slightly less challenging ones in a better economy, I seem to detect something that is almost like scorn, or a kind of reverse naivete, when established academics give advice to would-be ones. It seems to be easy to say "find another job that suits your talents," but surely we all -- established but still young academics and current strivers -- would have done so already if we could have. I can't say I know anyone who entered a PhD program with a naive attitude or the idea that it would be easy to get a job. Most of us, in fact, have already worked in a variety of other fields and found them all but impossible to rise in and far less suited to our talents than academia would be. We don't seek these jobs because we are fools, but because we have weighed our options and decided that a shot -- even if it is a long shot -- at a fulfilling career that challenges us intellectually, supports us financially, and suits us personally is better than a "practical" decision to to pursue a career that embodies few or none of those characteristics. Romantic? Yes, certainly, though such romanticism is hardly different from those who entered the profession in happier years. But such a view is hardly naive, and it seems to me to rub salt in our already stinging wounds for those who have jobs to act as if it is.
I might suggest targeting schools that already combine the humanities into larger departments. For instance, you might have a better shot at a school where English is a division within a "Communication Arts" type department (that combines Comm, Comp and Languages) rather than a a department where English is its own little universe. Hiring committees within "comprehensive" departments might be a little friendlier to your degree. Also, absolutely tailor your cover letter and resume to each school. When I went in for my 2pm interview, I altered the hard copy of my cover letter to read, "thank you for meeting with me this afternoon." The department head commented favorably about that particular detail. It may not have been THE reason they hired me, but it certainly didn't hurt.

Also, start with the assumption that you will need a second job to support your "teaching habit." Use the next few semesters/years to build your CV. Either get another part time job within your field or use your downtime to present at conferences. I recently began teaching and, despite current economic conditions, am actually really excited about my career and its future. I work as an editor during the day and teach two classes at night. It will probably be a while before I can support myself on teaching alone but I am FINALLY headed in a direction that excites me. The Daily Beast recently published an article about "gigonomics" - it's an interesting concept and I think you may find it helpful. Good luck!
Anon -- I hear you, but it's just plain irresponsible to say anything else. These days, I liken advising someone on job prospects in the Humanities as enabling an addiction. It really is just a terrible way to try to earn a living.
PM, I've been thinking about your comment for a few days. From my (admittedly young and starry eyed) perspective, I view striving to teach in the Humanities as akin to striving to earn a living as an actor or sculptor. You do it because you love the act itself and have a general lack of pragmatism. Your comparison to "enabling an addiction" is pretty apt. Despite this, I remain positive about the prospect of future adjuncting opportunities. I earn my health insurance from my daytime employer and my only responsibility is to a cat and a few houseplants. This leads me to my larger question: Is it irresponsible to spend university and instruction resources on creating an army of "part-timers?" If 90% of MA students said "oh, I'm just going to use my graduate degree to adjunct while raising my kids," would that be a service or disservice to CC's in general and to the Humanities in particular? Or what about the adjuncts who, after a few semesters, say, "wow, I'd like some job security and a 401K" and leave for other sectors? What is the impact of a workforce that never has more than four years of experience? Am interested in your and other posters' position on this. (Or even a main post from Dear DD - this question has bumping around in my head for a while.)
Anon -- I think the analogy to work in the fine arts is apt; as long as the person involved understands that they are foregoing certain kinds of lives (such as primary breadwinner for a family), then we can start having realistic conversations.
I wonder if established full-time faculty have some kind of schadenfreude about the dismal job prospects for newbies. Is it just possible that they may be jaded and burnt out in their current positions that in order to feel remotely "alive," relevant, and special they need to remind those who aspire to their level that such a pedestal is out of reach? Just a thought... Of course positions are hard to find--this is just an empirical fact--but "rubbing it in" to the already informed may just serve a purpose far less noble than trying to responsibly mentor up and comers.
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