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.