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.


Anonymous said...

I kind of think "Great! I hope we get four years out of this person before we have to search again" is a perfectly reasonable attitude for a search. Better than the one I've heard of at some schools that goes "oh, this person is too much of a star, they won't stay".

Dr. Curmudgeon said...

I've been thinking maybe this is what becomes of that academic angst so many of us feel (you know, the "I'm not as smart/cutting edge/excellent teacher/etc." sort) when it's allowed to go on for years.

It's interesting that the "love me, love me, love me" desire decried (and attributed to the Gumdrops) also fits the way in which many people come to feel about their departments.

squadratomagico said...

I, too, have been surprised by the venomous tone of the discussion. I have to assume that the person leading the charge on behalf of "senior faculty" must have had several really bad experiences. Perhaps on several occasions he was instrumental in hiring junior faculty who swore up and down they wanted to be at an institution just like his, and then went on the market the same semester they began teaching. If this were the case, the guy's bitterness might have an explanation. I can only explain his vitriol that way in my own mind -- it just has to be personal in some way. This guy must have made a bunch of bad hiring choices, or else work in a hellish department that everyone wants to flee.

This puts my own job market experience, years ago, in a new light. I always wondered why "teaching" jobs never interviewed me. I think now it was because I came from a grad. program with a reputation for producing researchy types, and those search committees assumed I'd swiftly try to leave if hired to a teaching gig. And they probably were right: I love teaching, but... in moderation. I need time and support for research, too, to be happy.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I've heard this before in job search meetings: Why waste time interviewing a recent Ph.D. with a super-promising record when you're sure they're going to use you as a stepping stone? I think that's a legitimate concern, in some cases. On the other hand, one of my best friends got her Ph.D. from a top-ranked program... and then puzzled her advisor to no end by refusing to apply for R1 jobs, because she really hated to write, and enjoyed teaching much more.

Lesson: Just like a new hire is rolling the dice with a department, so is a department rolling the dice with a new hire. That's the way it works, and although we may wish we could fix the rules in our favor (whichever side we happen to be on), there's no call to go blaming the other side for playing by those rules.

Dr. C: Yup, we all want love. I think this goes back to the marriage analogy you used on your blog (and I still say people like edsmithers are thinking covenant marriage). But we both know that the jr. faculty job search is about more than this insecure, needy kind of love -- it's more like looking for a soulmate. I'm not sure if I believe soulmates exist, but I continue to keep my eyes open, just in case.

Anonymous said...

Nobody hires someone thinking, "Great! I hope we get four years out of this person before we have to search again."

Actually, you know, it's funny, because someone at one of my past institutions actually did make almost exactly this statement about a recent hire! (It was annual review time, and someone decided to be a completely inappropriate a-hole about a recent hire, arguing that because he (a-hole) didn't think he (new hire) wanted to stay long term, he (new hire) should be reviewed less positively. To which new hire's chair said, "I'll be happy if we can keep him for 4 years!" The field? Econ. It was such a hard field to hire in (for that school), they felt like it would be better to have a good person even if they'd only be around for a few years, rather than choose someone "likely" to stay, because the latter would be someone who probably had few other options, and probably wouldn't be very good. But of course, this was very field specific.)

I still don't understand the utter venom that's come out in this discussion, either.

Belle said...

Maybe part of the venom can be attributed to the passing of the torch as well. Haven't we all encountered senior faculty who were wooed in the 70s, came in with clear expectations of tenure, research, etc. - and stayed? Bless their hearts, they've abounded in my academic life, and continue to astound me. They want somebody who's going to come in and make life easier. They want to do their 'job' by finding the body, and then return to their comfortable existence. If we move on, that disrupts their comfort and pattern.

The problem is we don't live in that market anymore. Jobs are hard to come by, and tenure isn't a given. They also are comfortably established, and tend to forget their own ambitions (achieved or compromised), aspirations (ditto)... and few had the partner issues that now further complicate lives. One of my colleagues actually turned down a merit raise, arguing that any money slated for him should go to me, as I was 'feloniously underpaid.' Neither of us got the money.