Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Saints and Sinners

There is a tempest brewing in the teapot that is the academic blogosphere. It all started with a post over at Dr. Crazy's (scroll down to October 26), to which she has since posted a couple of follow-ups. It then got commented on by a poster at RYS, which comment/post provoked a veritable shitstorm of comments, both pro and con (first installment here, with apparently more to come).

The topic: Are junior faculty who look for other jobs selfish brats?

I am disturbed by the level of vitriol heaped upon (can you heap vitriol?) the heads of untenured faculty whose sole offense seems to be keeping their eyes open for working conditions or job locations that might better suit their own needs. What is startling to me is how some commenters have cast as traitorous wretches those who have not considered their first tenure-track job to be the only job they will ever have. These faculty have been portrayed as not caring about their colleagues, their students, or their institutions. Faculty who think they can get better pay or working conditions are vilified as egomaniacs who are seeking "a place where their own peculiar preciousness will be admired by all." Faculty who wish to move to be near family (and we all know about the two-body problem so rampant in academia) are derided as wanting to be "close to mommy." Junior faculty, apparently, are supposed to practice a level of self-abnegation comparable to medieval saints.

Let me be clear: When we do a job search, we want colleagues who will stay for the long term. Nobody hires someone thinking, "Great! I hope we get four years out of this person before we have to search again," and losing a faculty member means a lot of work doing another search, and the danger of losing the line permanently. And, of course, there are those perennially unhappy job-hoppers who move every two years, looking for a perfect job that probably doesn't exist. But I suspect that these are the exception, rather than the rule. Most people with tenure-track jobs go on the market -- if they do at all -- for entirely legitimate reasons: salary, cost of living, family concerns, or to escape a toxic environment. And no one should begrudge them that.

I very much like my colleagues, and I would be sad to see just about any of them leave to take a job elsewhere. I think our department would be poorer for the loss, and I, for one, would miss them. But it would never occur to me to label them as selfish for doing what anybody in any other job would do.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

While I Was Away

First of all, thanks to all of you who checked in, both by e-mail in my absence (yes, B., I'm talking to you), and in the comments after I got back. It's nice to know that people are actually reading enough to notice when I go AWOL.

What happened: See the previous post. No, really: that was it. I took a huge hit to my confidence in my ability to do my job, and as a result, I went into complete retreat. I couldn't work, but I also couldn't properly procrastinate by blogging or stopping in at my blogfriends' virtual homes. I stopped taking pictures (a new hobby of mine), and stopped e-mailing friends. I just sat at home and the hours spun out (there's something to be said for the structure of regular teaching).

I do this sometimes. But after a week or two, I become disgusted with myself, and start taking those first steps back into the land of the living. Lately, I've been working on reading for Big Bad Theoretical Chapter (yep, that's the way I decided to go next), which will be part of my presentation at the end of this month, and will have the extra-special bonus feature of helping me reframe the article.

And, speaking of that: I got a very nice e-mail last night from one of the editors of Journal of Excellent Studies (hat-tip to Squadratomagico, who has also meme-tagged me), in response to my carefully-worded plan for revision. It was brief, but enthusiastic, and not in a form-letter way. So, on the whole, I am feeling more positive today.

And I'm glad to be back among the living. Hi!

Monday, October 29, 2007


re·cal·ci·trant (rĭ-kāl'sĭ-trənt): adj. Marked by stubborn resistance to and defiance of authority or guidance.

So, here's the deal. The article I sent off came back... with yet another verdict of revise-and-resubmit. Reader #1 wanted only two minor changes, the work of three minutes. Reader #2, however, was not so convinced, and gave me four and a half pages of suggestions for revisions.

Many of these suggestions are good, and there's one that pointed out a boneheaded factual error I made. But others seem to object to a lot of the underlying premises of the article. I fretted. I fumed. I internally stomped my feet and slammed doors. Recalcitrant, you see, is just "bratty" in four syllables.

On the other hand, I could tell from the comments that this was a knowledgeable person, and if a knowledgeable person points out where you're going wrong, you should take the opportunity to improve.

On the other hand (yes, that's three hands now), I'm up for tenure review in a year. This has got me very anxious. I need to publish this piece.

I was unsure what to do: Take weeks out of the book project that I had finally gotten back to, in order to resubmit to this high-ranking journal? Or ignore the comments and send it off to a less prestigious journal?

So, I did something sensible: I sent it off to a couple of friends, one of whom has been a mentor of mine since my grad school days. Their verdict: the comments require some serious revisions, but they're not as disastrous as you think they are. Take two weeks only, work hard on the revisions, and send it off again, because this journal is worth it.

So, that's it: I finish the work I'm doing (more on that in the next post), which will take me up to Thanksgiving, then work on the revision for two weeks, and try again.

But I'm still kind of stomping my feet, a little.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Still Alive, and a Music Suggestion

As Gregory of Tours said, at the beginning of his
History of the Franks, "A great number of things have been happening; some good, others bad." Which is my way of apologizing for lying down on the blogging job. I promise an update in a couple of days.

In the meantime, allow me to make a music suggestion: "Gulag Orkestar" by Beirut. Imagine David Byrne collaborating with a gypsy caravan to make a soundtrack for a Sergio Leone western. Add some euphonium. Stir.

Yes, they have a more recent album ("The Flying Cup Club"); if you're a fan of French folk music, you will like it a lot. But G.O. is my recommendation, and I'm sticking to it. Plus, the cover photo (found in an old volume of Russian photography in a library in Leipzig) is just pretty neat.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Contemplating the Workload

Today, over at Reassigned time, Dr. Crazy has a post on the research, teaching, and service expectations at her university. They are quite different from the ones I face. Coincidentally, I was just discussing publication expectations for tenure with a colleague at Fellowship Institute. Again, very different.

So, I put the question to you: What are the expectations at your place of employment (and in your department) for research, teaching, and service. Is there a difference between junior and senior faculty (Dr. Crazy reports her senior colleagues "checking out" after tenure, and the junior faculty bearing the brunt of service work; this is again, vastly different from my own experience). If you're tenured faculty, do you think the expectations have changed markedly in the years since you arrived? And, most importantly: do you think the current expectations are reasonable, in the context of your own institution?

Here's my breakdown:

1. Teaching: Technically, 4-4; in reality, there are little ways to work this down, and in my department, I don't think anyone teaches more than 3-3, and many teach even less. 3-3 is my standard load, though I can usually swing a 3-2 every couple of years. In addition, any graduate advising that we may take on -- I generally have 2-3 M.A. students of my own at any given time, and serve on one or two other grad committees. The Americanists have it much harder: usually 8-12 students of their own, and as many again as secondary readers. Luckily, the college is working on ways to credit these students against the normal teaching load... something like 5 grad students (of your own) in any given semester = one course. Seems fair.

2. Research: My sense is that, right now, a book contract, or three peer-reviewed articles published after your hire date is enough to get tenure. But that expectation is vague, and shifting all the time. Most of the faculty hired in the last 15 years had a book contract when they went up for tenure; most (though certainly not all!) of those hired before then published less. Not surprising: up until recently, this was the "teaching school," so research was not expected, and not particularly valued. But recently, the "buyer's market" in Humanities hiring means that mid-level schools like mine have their pick of faculty from research institutions, and most of these came in with a research agenda they were excited about. So they just kept researching and writing, 4-4 (or 3-3) teaching load be damned.

I might also note that, while books are the norm for our faculty, very few have second books. That may just be a function of having so many faculty under 40. But the next five years or so will tell, I suspect.

3. Service: junior faculty are wonderfully protected -- a couple of department committees a year, and usually some college- or university-level service thrown in there for three of those first six years. Many committees, in fact, can only be served on by tenured (and sometimes even full!) professors. With a department that, until the past couple of years, has been seriously bottom-heavy, a small handful of tenured profs have been bearing the bulk of the department's service load. So, the nice thing here is that they have a vested interest in getting us young 'uns tenured!

I'm generally happy with this, though I'd love to have a permanent 3-2 teaching load. (And, as the Spanish say, "...y un jamón.")

That was longer than I thought it would be. How about you?

Tuesday, October 9, 2007


Well, I've been mulling over the decision I need to make, but it seems I have a good excuse to put it off for a bit. You see, I completely forgot that one of my M.A. students was taking his field comprehensive exam (written) this weekend, so I find myself needing to spend the next ten days skimming the books and articles I assigned him for the two questions I'm having him answer. This is especially critical because this particular student occasionally reads a book or article and completely misinterprets the author's argument, then goes on to build his paper on a misunderstanding. Since I haven't read most of this stuff since grad school, I need to refresh my memory, so I don't find myself saying "Reynolds argued that? Huh. Well, maybe..."

Did I mention this is my first comp as primary examiner? So I'm overpreparing?

Monday, October 8, 2007

A Rough Year for Medievalists

It's the second week in October, and most of the job ads that are going to be out, are. So this seems an opportune time to assess the situation. Let me preface this by saying that, although I follow the job ads, in no way was I planning on being on the market this year. And it's a darned good thing, too, because the medieval field in my discipline is having a rough year. I've counted 21 jobs. Not so bad? The three years around when I went on the market, there were about 32 medieval jobs in my discipline, each with usually 90 or so applicants. Those were good years (yes, a three-to-one qualified-applicant-to-job ratio is considered "good"). And a handful of the jobs this year are really quite good: a few R1s, a few high-end liberal arts colleges. So, why do I think 21 job openings makes for such a rough year? Well, take away:

• 2 positions open to hires at the level of associate or full professor
• 10 positions that are medieval combined with another chronological field – common at small colleges
• 1 position that is very geographically specific

…and we have eight jobs that the majority of junior medievalists can apply for, that won't involve them competing against not only 90 people in their field, but also 50-150 additional people in another neighboring field. Eight.

I'm posting this, not to be an ass, but to offer my heartfelt sympathy and support to those on the market this year. And to remind myself of how lucky I was. Would I have gone to grad school if I'd known the TT market was this bad? Probably – I had a weird and possibly unique set of motivations that had nothing to do with market forces. But I might have stuck with the M.A. and settled down in a nice Community College job in Home City, rather than chasing the TT job.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Which way next?

Here's my dilemma: I need to figure out which chapter to work on next. I have three chapters left to draft, which essentially boil down to two substantive choices:

1. One of the two archivally-based chapters, each dealing with a specific issue in the larger topic. These are, in many ways, cannibalized from the dissertation, but with extra material both primary and secondary added in, and the larger analytical framework threaded through; or…

2. The Big Bad Theoretical Chapter, which forms a bridge between the background chapter (written, and looking decent) and the four archivally-based chapters. This chapter is where I really lay the foundation for doing something new and different. It's critical, and absolutely critical that I get it right. Unfortunately, I know next to nothing about it. I've done no work yet on this chapter at all, and all I know about it is that: a) It needs to get me from point A to point C; and b) I know about four of the authors whose ideas are currently providing the bulk of my inspiration. Oh, and did I mention that this is not the kind of work in my discipline that my graduate training prepared me for?

Option one is by far less daunting: I know more or less what either of these two chapters has to say, and I can guess how long each is going to take me (six weeks for either one, I'd guess). Option two is more intimidating, because I know neither of these things about it. It's a bit of intellectual quicksand that I will have to traverse, sooner or later. But the reading promises to be interesting.

But: I have a research presentation to give at Fellowship Institute just after Thanksgiving, and I'm thinking that, if I need feedback and input on any chapter, it should be Big Bad, since I'm so lost. On the other hand, if Big Bad takes longer than six weeks to think about and draft, I could find myself still floundering when the presentation comes around.

I've gone back and forth on this for a week or two now. I'm leaning towards option one. What is really pulling me that way is this: If Big Bad's job is to take me from point A to point C, it would be helpful to have point C finished, rather than half-finished.

Thursday, October 4, 2007


Yep. I've put a lid on chapter 4. Or, at least a draft of chapter four. It's not quite as "done" as I'd wanted it to be: for example, the second half of the chapter is still littered with square brackets advising me to check a reference here, or add some more analysis there, and the conclusion is, frankly, lame. But the honest-to-god truth is that I simply couldn't look at this thing anymore. I had gotten to the point where I was simply moving around the deck chairs on the Titanic, so to speak.

So anyway, even as we speak, the thing is printing out. I'm going to post this, then label a file folder "Chapter 4 Draft", and put it in my desk drawer, never to be looked at again until I've got drafts at this level of all the other chapters, too. By then, I should have some perspective.

Oh, and by the way: in this last iteration, the chapter lost some 550 words, so the word count went backwards for a while. Not bad, though: I expected this chapter to be about 13,000 words, and it ended up at 15,500 -- for better or for worse.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

It just never ends...

I still keep trying to write my conclusions for this chapter, and every time I sit down to outline what I've already got so I can see (and thus sum up) my main points, I see another thing that really belongs somewhere else, another paragraph of infelicitous prose, another example of why I need to rethink my decision twelve years ago to give up a promising career as a barista....