Since You Asked: My Unfashionable Research Edition

Every once in awhile, I pull a question from the comments that deserves a post-length reply with proper grammar that isn’t typed with my thumbs, and I reprint it here, and I answer it. Today’s question is:

I’m curious as to what role you think your unfashionable choice of approach to literature had on the ups and downs of your post-graduation academic career. Was much of the derision and mockery you mention from people within your discipline, or just from random internet loons? Did you get the impression that hiring committees, conference audiences, blind reviewers etc knew what to do with your work? That they had a sense of its strengths and weaknesses that matched your own conception?

Very interesting question. First of all, the vast majority of the mockery and derision comes from random internet loons, and/or individuals who are not in German studies and don’t know anything about it.

To the rest, I would say that it had both a substantial role and no role. Here’s what I mean by that. Let’s say I went on the market with this dissertation/book in 2005, when it was about 2-3 times as not-horrible as it is now. I might still have some problems, but not nearly, nearly as many, and here’s why:

  1. My choice to work with analytic philosophy–something about which most literary scholars neither know nor care–was very risky. I very stupidly thought, when I decided on a topic, that I should do something about which I was extremely passionate, and that was edgy and had never been done before. This was, in hindsight, a bad idea. BUT, I don’t think it actually was the deciding factor that kept me out of a job. For that, see below.
  2. My choice to work with 20th Century literature–and Austrian 20th Century literature–also put me out of vogue. The jobs that people want now are often 21st C, cultural/media/digital studies things. So it wasn’t necessarily the analytic-philosophy-ness of it, it was actually the groan-worthy everyone-does-it-ness of Kafka. “Not another Kafka dissertation!” Etc. Most departments already have either A Kafka Person, or someone who thinks he is one. However, I don’t think this is actually what kept me out of a job. For that, see below.
  3. I went to a very reputable but not-Ivy-league PhD program (it was ranked 11th in the country when I got there; I have no idea where it stands now, as the department that houses it has been decimated by the University of California), staffed with several extremely well-regarded scholars. However, its non-Ivy-ness meant that given how poor the market was, I should have, from the beginning, set my sights solely on “teaching institutions” and not R1 institutions, which have all gone oligarchy-crazy in the buyer’s market. In a word, my research was too big for its britches. It was too ambitious for the kind of jobs for which I was actually qualified. My only interviews were with R1s, because SLACs take one look at “Kafka and Wittgenstein” and their eyes glaze over–there is no way I could teach that to undergrads, they think (although I have, and it went over great). But usually I never made it past the interview stage at these R1s–and inevitably, they almost all hired an Ivy. Because they could. And I don’t fault them. One of the reasons I was not as competitive on the market as I should have been was that I had too many publications and my research was too ambitious for the “level” of school my “off-brand” PhD actually qualifies me for. It doesn’t matter that I have absolutely stellar evals and that I am (usually) a very SLAC-y teacher. My dissertation was too ambitious. However, that is not what kept me out of a job. For that, see below.
  4. I have a terrible attitude and unprofessional tone, and am a nightmare colleague and a “loose cannon,” and that is why I didn’t get a job. Oh wait, that is a complete fabrication based on my post-academic publication record, and has absolutely fuck-all to do with what kept me out of a job. For that, see below.
  5. In the end, my strange research niche did not do me any favors on the market, I will grant you that. However, to the one, every place that ever interviewed me (and many that didn’t) have really liked my research. My research was never, ever the problem. And that shows in the fact that I have had absolutely zero struggle getting published in some of the highest-ranking journals (and at one of the finest presses) in the country. If my luck on the market had any correlation to my luck being published, I’d have tenure by now.
  6. The reason–the one and only reason–I did not get a tenure-track job is that there are not enough of them to go around. The right “fit” for me just never materialized, because there are so precious few right “fits” in existence. My first year on the market, I applied to like 16 tenure-track jobs and was ignored by all of them. My second, I applied to ten and got one interview. My third, I applied to six and got one interview. My fourth, I applied to twelve and got two interviews, and one campus visit. Given the miniscule number of jobs for which I was even qualified to apply, I absolutely cleaned up on the market. But it wasn’t nearly enough. And that, in the end, is why I never got a job. Because there were not enough for me to apply for. The end!

22 thoughts on “Since You Asked: My Unfashionable Research Edition

  1. i wanted to do wittgenstein and the avant garde…laughing at the idea that ANYONE would accept such apolitical, “difficult” work, except an Ivy where You Can Do Anything!


  2. #6 is right on. I’m in literature, and back when I was thinking about whether I really wanted to go to graduate school, all my professors told me it was really hard and they had to apply for a lot of jobs to only get one or two interviews. One professor told me he applied for 100 positions. I look at the JIL every year just to educate myself (I’ll be on the market next year), and not once in my six years of looking has there ever been anywhere near 100 jobs for me to apply to, and I’m doing a weird postcolonial/world lit thing that would allow me to apply for jobs in British and American. I think this past year there were maybe 20 jobs I could apply for, and that included jobs for which my area would be a stretch and R1 jobs that I would never be competitive for. I think the number of jobs for which I could reasonably be competitive that really fit with my dissertation was like 10, and of those, only about half were in places I’d ever want to live. I know that choosing where you want to live is supposed to be something I gave up on a long time ago as an academic, but I’m done with that academic martyr bullshit. I like teaching and have a lot of experience with my department’s writing program and teaching developmental writing, so I’m going to be expanding my search to community colleges when I go on the market next year.


  3. What is “fashionable” can change from one year to the next. There might be three or four jobs for a specific subfield one year, and the next year zero. Even if your research is fashionable for long enough to get you a job, the fact that something is “in” by itself is a bad reason to do a dissertation. You might be condemning yourself to a project you aren’t that invested in, and it might not even get finished. We literary scholars face a similar issue when we decide on an author to write about. Doing an unknown might be cool, and we all want to break out of the canon. But I’ve known people who have done this, only to find that nobody was interested in their research. At the other end of the spectrum is what you describe with Kafka: lots of people might think its cool, but you also risk the perception that the field is already crowded.


  4. So true. Ever notice how an “original and provocative” dissertation can turn into “niche, over-specialized, impractical” if you’re not at one of maybe five schools? Or if you don’t land a job right off the bat, you’re definitely not original and provocative.

    The maddening thing is that fit trumps everything. Right dissertation + lack of prep school background = bad fit for some places. Or you just might be the perfect fit…at a school that decides to convert a TT line in German to a contingent position.


  5. F*ck every damn stupid short-sighted state legislature, president, provost, and dean. “Foreign languages? Why would we need to fund the learning of *those?*”


  6. And since we’ve now clearly isolated the relevant variable as “fit,” perhaps we can drop the euphemism and call it what it is: “fit” is just the sum total aggregate of all the prejudices, ego-mania, and dysfunction that govern every department everywhere. “Fit” is where medieval guild privilege meets post-modern market. “Fit” is the rationalization of million-dollar brains engaged with ten-cents worth of perspective and experience. “Fit” is where they determine whether you’re willing to do their crap-work so they can get on with their “real work.” “Fit” is what allows allegedly liberal-minded professors to engage in the most conservative institutional reproduction of themselves. “Fit” is whether you hate teaching as much as they do because, gosh, you must be just such an awesome researcher. “Fit” is whether you reflect their own aspirationalist psychoses back at them in an oh-so-pleasing manner. “Fit” is bullshit.


  7. Strange. I went to a SLAC and would have killed or died to have taken a class on Kafka and Wittgenstein. (I took several on each, as it were). Then again, I suppose I am an n=1, and what’s more, an n=1 who happens to be more-or-less obsessed with K and W. Still, at my SLAC, that kind of stuff would have fit right in, I suspect. (Obvi not disagreeing with your overall point!)


  8. I’ve suspected than #3 might be my problem as well…but then again I worry whether that’s just an idol of my own vanity.


    • You can be too big for your britches without actually thinking you’re sooooo goooood. That’s pretty much how it went down with me. I thought I was pretty OK-good, you know, good enough, but then I just had this idea that was too ambitious for “good enough.”


  9. #3 was almost exactly my experience. Hence the chair of an R1 saying to me, at an MLA interview (my third-greatest academic achievement was getting that interview), “our grad students would never take that class.” Even though THEY CHOSE ME OUT OF 600 TO MEET IN PERSON and, I’m pretty sure, did so after reading my research.

    My #1 and #2 greatest academic achievements, since I know you want to ask, were getting published in New Literary History and getting offered a VAP at a dream SLAC. A VAP which I turned down because I’d already flown the coop by the time they offered (and in fact the crisis of my MLA interview with same SLAC not leading to a campus visit was why I decided to leave academia in the first place, months before they offered the VAP that surely would have led me like a sailor hypnotized by sirens to that bitterly cold Midwest town, had they not already broken my academic heart.)


    • I wonder what percentage of candidates on the market have published in elite journals….

      In academia these days, it’s better to be lucky than good.


      • Yup! But also, “these days” were also “those days.” It’s been this way for a very long time. The academic labor issues are symptoms of broader labor issues, and it behooves us not to be narrow-sighted in our analyses of our own experiences.


      • To be sure, it’s been bad since the 70s (and as you say, it’s a symptom–like the price of college and the explosion of administerial positions). But it’s gone from bad to a lot worse since 2008–when I started grad school incidentally, fondly hoping that the market would recover to its normal-crap state by the time I left.


  10. Odd that anyone from a SLAC would assume that because you work on Kafka and Wittgenstein you could only teach Kafka and Wittgenstein. I normally assume those people know better, but I guess not.

    Also, I too am in the odd position of having “rocked” the market this year and still being without a job. I’d like to say I am proud of it, but taking any solace in the sort-of-offer I got (“in the event the first offer is declined, we’d love to have you”) seems like acceding to the horribleness of the world as it is.

    I do, however, take solace in your blog.


    • Yes, the idea that you are apparently beholden to teaching 100% material from your dissertation for the rest of your life is very weird. Very very weird. “Congrats” by the way? Hopefully their #1 is just doing a leverage-market and won’t take the job ;).


  11. You did a lot better in interviews than I did. I suspect you could have easily found work in Asia or Africa at an English speaking institutions without any problem. I know the Philosophy department here has been desperate for years to attract foreign PhDs that will stay at least six years. They have lost three in four years that stayed less than two years.


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