New Year, New MLA Dreams

01/05/2011 09:47 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Merry holiday fun time and new year that hopefully isn't as crappy as 2010!! It's been a while, but I'm back and with absolutely no resolutions. In fact, get ready for it: another tirade on the academic job market.

I'll tell you a story that I can hardly believe myself. I have a very good friend who is a brilliant, talented teacher and needs a job. Her area of research is hot right now--sexuality studies with some LGBT flavor, a sprinkling of feminism, and some bold and juicy assertions about medieval literature. While she is not homeless or jobless, currently working two adjunct jobs to pay the bills, she has had no luck on the job market. Of course, you might say, that's the state of things right now. No one can get a job, not the smartest, funniest, most charming, or best looking of us all. Granted, I say this while Sarah Palin makes $250,000 per episode to bludgeon mackerel and shoot elk with a high-powered rifle.

But I digress.

Time after time, my friend has applied for jobs that seemed tailored to her skills in every way--even down to asking for someone with her particular research interests (and they are quite particular). And of course, the number of applicants was really high this time around, blah blah blah. It is nice when you actually get a rejection letter instead of just hovering a few feet above the gallows until you know they MUST have filled the position a year later, right? Ahem. Anyway, the most recent application having gone the same dismal way, my good friend discovered something quite inexplicable: a graduate student at the school where she teaches who is ABD (All But Dissertation) got an interview with the very school that seemed to want her particular qualifications. And she got nothing.

To quote my dear friend, "I give up. And I might vomit." I can't blame her if she does. How is it that someone who has not even half of her qualifications, including awards for teaching and research, pole vault right over her job-seeking head? When should someone who does not teach earn a teaching job over someone who has for almost 10 years? In what other industry would this EVER be okay?

Welcome to the paradox of the academic job market.

I tried to imagine this same scenario playing out in the competition for my job, which is in higher education, and I can't seem to reconcile it at all. In other lines of work, years of experience and ingenuity often lead to raises and sometimes promotion. Interviewees are (ideally) selected based upon the requirements of the advertisement, not some committee member's current academic interest. What a dream it would be if scholars were hired based upon their real contributions to past and future learning environments, and the enrichment they have offered to their hundreds of students. Schools might really benefit from hiring actual people instead of CVs.

So many of my friends are depressed and overeducated. And I firmly believe that this will not change until the whole of academia gets a major overhaul--not just in hiring and research and all that, but also the most basic conception colleges and universities have about their purpose. The sad thing is that there is a chasm between what universities say they offer--knowledge, enrichment, opportunity--and what they actually value: the fiscal imperative.

But my message is not all doom and gloom. In this new year, as MLA approaches, I say good luck to all those who got interviews, and a big chin up to those who didn't. I would also say to those who feel helpless: no matter how much time you've invested, money you've spent (whether it's yours or not), and pages you've written, there is no shame in leaving a familiar path when you're tired of endless roadblocks. There is always another way, even if the gods of academia don't tell you about it.