Rate My JIL, Oct. 4, plus: TRIPLING DOWN on Sewanee

First things first–here’s a new ad for what would be a glorious job at a wonderful school, if it were actually open to people like me:

Wellesley, Post-1750. I would love–and most Small Liberal Arts College (SLAC) professors would love–to be at Wellesley. Hillary Clinton’s alma mater, for chrissake. The best women’s college in the world! And in the Northeast, so spouses would be able to work at any number of academic or nonacademic institutions in the immediate vicin. There is not a feminist liberal-arts aficionado on God’s green earth who would not salivate to work with Wellesley students. I love my students now, but I absolutely ache when I think how wonderful it would be to live in Wellesley in the autumn, strolling about their idyllic campus, engaging in topical, intense, informed, feminist-friendly discussions with some of the smartest and most conscientious young womyn in the world. I would love to work there. Any Germanist who isn’t obsessed with being at an R-1 would love to work there.

But–and you can see this from their current faculty roster–Wellesley, and schools of their caliber, hire almost exclusively native speakers to teach foreign languages. This is in some ways understandable–parents of Wellesley students pay, what, $70,000 a year now? They want their daughters to be getting the best instruction–and to the uninitiated, the best foreign language instruction means a native speaker. And I mean a NA.TIVE. I have a friend who is actually a native speaker of German but is not from Germany, and she has been told, straight-up, by many liberal-arts professors (even though this is blatantly illegal): “Are you German? We only hire Germans.”

Never mind that recent SLA pedagogical research shows that a non-native speaker can be just as effective–and even offer different advantages!–as a native speaker (I’m talkin’ to you Claire Kramsch!). Never mind that most undergraduate students can’t tell the difference if your accent is good. Never mind that it is often harder to teach your native language as a second language, because having never had any L2 learner experience means you are at a disadvantage as to understanding the issues L2 learners have. Never mind that if you have the same L1 as the other L1s in your class, you often immediately understand why they’ve transposed certain words, or you can understand immediately what they “meant” to do when they used Google or LEO to translate a word/sentence directly, and used the wrong synonyms instead (this has some hilarious results, by the way).

I’m not saying that native speakers aren’t the best language pedagogues. Many are. Most German German teachers I know are truly, absolutely spectacular, tip-top-of-their-field. But some of the best language teachers I know are also L2 speakers–and as such, they are great role models for the kids because they can say, “Hey, I started German/Russian/Arabic/Chinese when I was 18, just like you, and now look!” ANYWAY! Job Ad Grade: N for Native Speakers Only.


AND NOW a tripling down on the recent grade I gave to Sewanee: University of the South, which has some of the most vociferously loyal alumni I have ever encountered, and must indeed be a great place for students to engender that kind of loyalty.

I’d like to make a few clarifications about how I came to give that grade, and encourage readers to understand what I meant to emphasize, and what I did not, and what the real point of that grade was. Here’s how it went–for demonstration purposes, I have turned my brain into a 1980s home PC:

>>>>>>>>>SIZE: SMALL


I didn’t mean to say that Sewanee students and faculty are themselves racist, backward, non-cosmopolitan or anything else (although how much do we love it when White people get offended by “bigotry” against them? Exqueese me, your privilege is showing). I didn’t mean to say that the town itself is a backwoods shit-hole–in fact, the scenery seems quite nice and I am a very outdoorsy person and love peace and quiet.  I did not mean to dump on Chattanooga–again, I live, voluntarily, in SAINT LOUIS–so much as I meant to show that because it is a smaller city with the kind of quasi-industry typical of these limping Southern/Midwest postindustrial towns (like the one I live in! Right now!), it probably wouldn’t offer much in the way of a career for a trailing spouse. I am using my experience of nonacademic St. Louis faculty spouses looking for work, unsuccessfully, for six years, to make these judgments.

My cynicism at the EOE language was because “fit” is the sole determining factor as to whether or not a faculty will be hired. “Fit” has to do with three main qualities:

1) Will this person get along with everyone? This is a factor that can definitely be largely independent of the candidate’s marital status, sex, sexuality or race. But unfortunately, it’s not the whole determinant. There is also:

2) Will this person get tenure? Again, that often has little to do with these aforementioned factors, but sometimes does adversely affect women, if the faculty colleague suspect the woman a) is pregnant, b) has small children, or c) is planning on becoming pregnant. And then, most importantly, there is:

3) Will this person stay here, or will we have to repeat this search in three years when s/he gets another job, in a large metropolitan area where her husband also found work as a [whatever, presuming anyone can find work doing anything these days]? A faculty with a spouse that has to work elsewhere will probably not stay. Ergo, that faculty will be a bad “fit.” Women, and to a lesser extent faculty of color, will be more likely to leave for these reasons. Ergo, they will often be a poor “fit” for a job with this profile, regardless of how nice everyone is there. Ergo, although the EOE language is admirable, it is in an important way disingenuous in the end, because departments need to hire the best “fit,” and the best “fit” for a job like this would be someone who can bring his/her family and settle in the area.

If you aren’t old enough to have a spouse and/or kids yet, and can’t wrap your head around the fact that most people in their mid-to-late-30s do not want to have the “adventure” of uprooting themselves and schlepping all their belongings and working for their first two months without pay while the department manager nickel-and-dimes them on their moving expenses, and being far away from everyone they love (and it is very, very hard to make new friends over 30–just ask the New York Times!), then you have no standing to criticize me, and shut the fuck up. If all you see when I say this is “Rebecca Schuman is a cosmopolitan elitist who doesn’t understand how lovely it is in one particular Southern town, and how nice the people are,” then you are functionally illiterate, and thus your problems are much father-reaching than quibbling with me over the University of the South.

I lived the “two-body problem” for two years–in a very nice college town, one of the nicest in the country. Columbus is a place where most faculty in the US long to be able to live. It is diverse, dynamic, cheap, interesting, politically important (I volunteered for Pres. Obama’s re-election last year and it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life), has some great cheap restaurants (including many “ethnic” restaurants), a truly spectacular bicycle greenway, incredible university facilities (oh, the gym…)–Columbus is a wonderful city and OSU is a great, truly great university, and I still had the worst two years of my life there, because I was all alone.

Those are real experiences I really lived. I have been on the Visiting Assistant Professor track, and existed as one of the bodies in a “two-body problem.” It is hell on earth. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. And when you turn my true, pained expression of my experience into alleged “bigotry” (“bigotry,” mind you, about a state that just refused to expand medicaid to hundreds of thousands of poor, mostly Black people with the sole purpose of spiting our Black president and refusing to recognize the authority of a law he passed), then you are missing the point.

I will acknowledge that many of the faculty and students at Sewanee: University of the South are blissfully happy, and the right “fit” for that job will indeed be blissfully happy there. I would acknowledge that many of my misgivings about the South are informed by six years in St. Louis, which is one of the most racially segregated and institutionally racist places in the country. I’ll apologize to Sewanee alums for painting their area with a broad brush, but you Internetz have got to acknowledge that when it comes to the academic labor market and the kinds of people who get hurt by it, I know what the fuck I’m talking about.

Meanwhile: to all you native Germans, good luck with that Wellesley job!


7 thoughts on “Rate My JIL, Oct. 4, plus: TRIPLING DOWN on Sewanee

  1. It strikes me as terribly unfair (and illegal, as you noted) to hire only native speakers of foreign languages to teach those languages, for all the reasons you mentioned. If accent is a concern, it’s always possible to set it up so that students from whichever country it is can study there, in exchange for a few hours a week working in the language lab. (That’s what Sewanee did in the Russian department when I was there.)


  2. As much as I agree with the basic argument about hiring practices for foreign language teaching, I’m a little less ready to dismiss accent as a hiring criterion out of hand. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it has to be, at least, good enough so that students who learn to understand their teacher speaking German will also be able to understand native German speakers–believe me, it takes only a little to make an accent by an American speaking German incomprehensible to me, a German (the missing glottal stops are a prime culprit). Administrators hiring a German teacher have to be able to evaluate the accent of candidates, and they make their life easier by insisting on native speakers off the bat–one issue less to worry about. BTW The price they pay may be that students will learn to speak German with a Bavarian, or Rhenish, or (God forbid) Saxon accent, but administrators may not even be aware of these distinctions. There is no excuse for insisting that candidates be German nationals–would they really exclude Austrians or Swiss Germans?


    1. I agree with you on a *bad* accent (my rule is–if you have a terrible accent go work at an R-1 where nobody cares…if you can get a job). But I, for example, speak with such a light accent that most native speakers assume that I am either from another part of the German-speaking world, or that I have lived in the States for a few years and allowed my accent to “flatten out” a bit. Most non-native German PhDs I know speak *flawless, beautiful* German.


    2. A hiring committee has no way of assessing a candidate’s language proficiency, since it’s impossible to do so with 100+ otherwise highly-qualified candidates. Everyone puts “near-native” on their CV, to the point that the term is meaningless, since most people are *not* near-native. Grad seminars tend to be taught in English so they can be opened up to the university. Our scholarship tends to be written in English for the American academy. Our papers in grad school, including our dissertations, are written in English. Undergraduate courses are no longer taught in German at most places. If we have German classmates, they tend to speak only English to us. I’m not surprised that there’s what seems to be a preference for native Germans; the English speakers have no way to prove their proficiency, other than to say “near-native” on their CV, which hiring committees know is not usually the case.

      A solution would be for hiring departments to require demonstrated proficiency at the ACTFL Distinguished level, or the GDS with “sehr gut” … That way the hiring committees *know* that the person is completely and totally 100% near-native.

      I had professors in grad school whose German was appalling. I had colleagues in grad school whose German was appalling. And yet we require high school teachers to demonstrate proficiency. We require flight attendants to demonstrate proficiency. Most employers will require demonstrated proficiency if the role involves language usage. So why not the professoriate? We peer-review everything else, so why not their language skills? We should be held to higher standards than anyone else if the tool of our trade is a language other than our own.

      Let’s say a committee chooses 25 candidates for a short list and they test the German of the non-native speakers at the MLA Speed Dating Competition. They’re not going to find that many truly near-native speakers of German from that short list, but let’s say they find two who look promising (from what little they can gather during the Speed Dating Sesh). So then they choose four — 2 Germans and 2 non-Germans — for campus interviews. When they have the time to probe at the non-Germans’ language ability, they establish that it’s not “near-native,” so that leaves them with only the two Germans as candidates. And if they hadn’t chosen any native Germans and got stuck with four linguistic duds? Then they’ve just destroyed their search. It does make sense for committees to shortlist a disproportionate number of native Germans, since saying “I’m near-native! Hire me!” is the cry of literally every single English-speaking candidate on the market. It just isn’t the case for most of them.

      As for the legalities … I don’t know anything about that. My feeling is that the universities can quite easily prove they can’t find any non-native speakers of whatever language to fill the role, considering 99.9% of those native speakers can’t actually demonstrate proficiency without an ACTFL OPI or GDS examination. And don’t universities sort of get to write their own immigration rules when it comes to who they hire?


      1. A good 15 minutes of my MLA interviews were always in German, sometimes 30. Paul Michael Lützeler once asked me about the future of the discipline and what my THIRD book would be about (i had just signed a contract for my first). That was definitely sufficient to assess my language.

        We have to put near native on CVs because that is what the dumb ad language says.

        But I assure you, I am extremely fluent in German, as is every single grad student I know. And again–just because someone is native in a language doesn’t mean they can teach it.

        Speaking of which. My undergrad language classes are 100% full immersion, Middlebury style. My scholarship was in English here in the US, but the year I spent in Vienna it was in German, including a conference paper and an hour long symposium, after which I also did Q and A in German. This experience was also true of everyone I know who did a year over there in grad school, which is everyone I know in the field. I don’t know where you are getting all your duds. Maybe you should broaden your short list to include grads of non Ivies. The few duds I know are ivy grads. Everyone I know from a R1 is spectacular in fluency. I could point you in the direction of some great ones.

        That said, I don’t see any problem with the language exam idea. That would be very fun to study for.


  3. Thank you, Rebecca, for your discussion of the “two body problem.” I live(d) it too; it was the main reason I left academia. My spouse is not currently an academic, but he is in aerospace, and there are only a few places in the country (maybe even in the world) where he would feasibly be happy. He and his business partner have their own company and that’s tied him to the Houston area, at least for now. I remember the day when I realized I would not be going up for T-T jobs. Although in retrospect, it’s probably good the way things happened, at the time, I was devastated to realize that unless I either left or made him miserable, that I would need to see what else *I* could do. The feminist in me was incensed by this, of course, but in a way, the whole thing became a no-brainer. As a freelance writer/consultant/editor, I can live and be happy pretty much anywhere. As an academic, not so much. I knew this, of course, when I started my program. What I didn’t count on was falling in love with an amazing person and realizing I didn’t want to live apart from him.


  4. And I realize that made me seem such a sap, but you know what–I don’t care. Until the academy recognizes its institutionalized sexism and racism, this kind of thing is going to KEEP happening.


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