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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!