The conference job interview: time to kill it? A few thoughts.

First, some background for any readers who might stumble upon this post and not know the basics. (Academic readers in English and other fields that do first-round interviews at discipline conferences can skip the next paragraph.)

As all my regular readers know, fields in the literature and language in the US generally do their first round of job interviews for tenure-track assistant professor jobs (and sometimes higher ranked ones) at the Modern Language Association convention each year. That convention used to be held the weekend after Christmas, but has now been moved back to after the new year. This year’s convention will be next weekend, January 9-12. Department interview committees come to the conference to interview somewhere in the ballpark of 10-15 first round candidates for the job they advertised earlier in the academic year (the MLA “Job List” opens in September, but many ads get placed after that). Candidates come to the conference to be interviewed, but they often have to make travel arrangements before they’re sure they will *have* any interviews. I think that was the case for me the first time I did it, but the second time, I was lucky to be informed of at least one interview more than a month ahead, and so made my arrangements knowing that I had a purpose for being there. (A person *usually* doesn’t give a paper in the same year that they’re interviewing. First of all, there are only ever a few panels in one’s particular field, and it’s hard to get on them. I’ve given exactly *one* MLA paper, versus many multiple Medieval Academy, New Chaucer Society, and Medieval Congress — K’zoo and Leeds — papers. Second, you’ve got enough to worry about with interviews — who needs the worry of a paper, too? Third, you want to be as flexible as possible with times for interviews. But I do remember one year in which one of our candidates was giving a paper, so it’s not unheard of — just unusual.) After that round of interviews, departments then bring 2-4 candidates to their campus for the second round.

OK, that’s the background. There’s a lot of talk around the internet (blogs, Twitter, Facebook) about how much of a financial and mental stress this whole process puts on candidates, and at the present moment, I think that’s true. (There’s way too much to link to. Just trust me on this. You’ve probably already seen it anyway.) I’m not even that old in the field, but a lot has already changed since I was on the market in 2001-2 and 2002-3. My department gave some travel funding to job seekers, enough, iirc, that covered my airfare even cross-country, and I wasn’t even in a particularly rich department. The first year I shared a room, but the second year, I decided that managing my anxiety would be easier without a roommate, and I took the extra financial hit as an “investment in myself.” But as bleak as the job market was then, I could still believe in that kind of Pollyannish financial pablum. And that year I had 13 interviews, so the per-interview cost of the hotel room and other expenses was relatively low. But that is not the case for most job candidates today.

The last few years I’ve been to MLA — I went to LA and to Seattle recently — I’ve talked to seriously *outstanding* job candidates — people whose excellent work I know — who had 0, 1, and 2 interviews, even on their second and third go-rounds, with the PhD in hand. I don’t think I met anyone who had more than 3. I really felt bad for the ones who shelled out for the conference and ended up with no interviews. Even the year I had only 2 interviews didn’t feel as bleak to me as these recent years have felt — there was still a sense of hope for the next year.

Anyway, like many people these days, I’m generally in favor of moving to a discipline-wide practice of Skype (or other video) or phone interviews for the first round of interviews. Yes, both can be awkward in comparison to face-to-face interviews, but they also avoid some of the awkwardness of the latter. For instance, in a Skype or phone interview, I’ll never feel bad about the female candidate who realizes her skirt is a little uncomfortably short when she sits down, and I’m unlikely to see how a candidate’s hands shake when he’s understandably nervous. And no one will be sitting on the hotel bed! (Yes, that still happened in my interviews, but it was the committee person who had to make do with the bed, not me.)  A phone or video interview lets you ignore physical distractions (remind me someday to tell you about the committee that kept fighting over the thermostat) and focus on the things that matter. In my experience doing phone interviews as an interviewee and helping a friend practice for his Skype interviews, both are actually a little more relaxed once the weirdness of the technology is smoothed out.

I realize that there might be some technology cost associated with doing things this way, and perhaps some logistic wrangling, but surely that’s cheaper and easier for all parties than the conference, isn’t it?

And there’s a kind of democratizing and leveling out that goes along with such a practice — one that benefits both candidates and hiring departments. I still remember the interview I had with RBU. They’d picked one of the mid-level price hotels, an old grand dame hotel that probably looked *fabulous* on the web site. Indeed, its lobby was absolutely grand, full of rich woods and Persian carpets. But unbeknownst to my future colleagues and to me, there was an unrenovated wing of the hotel that still had some SRO residents in it (!). Guess where the RBU committee’s room was. Yup. It was really weird. I got off the elevator and turned down a secondary hallway where suddenly the wallpaper and carpeting changed (I think I even had to go down a step) and the lighting got very dim. It turned out to be an ice-breaking kind of thing — the committee all laughed about my finding them on the edge of doom and asking if I’d been accosted by the lady next door (who was convinced my colleagues were being visited by prostitutes!), and explained that had they known, they would’ve picked another hotel, but I very nearly had a *bad* first impression of RBU (“This is all they can afford?”). And has anyone ever had to have an interview with a committee that met you in the mass-interviewing room, the one with all the tables? I haven’t, but I always felt sorry for the institutions who had to do that. What kind of impression does that make?

And believe it or not, the practice of interviews at the MLA conference was actually begun in order to democratize the process, so the move to phone/video interviews would be in keeping with that spirit. Michael Bérubé, former MLA president, writes about this in a public Facebook post in which he dispels a number of myths about the MLA convention and the interviews. He’s what he has to say about the interview process:

But it’s worth pointing out that the conference-interview system was created not to discriminate against anyone, but precisely to break up the deeply discriminatory and opaque system as it existed in the 1960s, whereby dissertation directors or directors of graduate studies got on the phone with their friends at other universities and let them know that Horatio Q. Shuttlecock was completing a most excellent dissertation and would like an assistant professorship in their department. Or, conversely, department heads called their friends to find out if they knew of any good prospects among the new crop of Ph.D.s. That, folks, was the old boy network, and guess what? It was run by old boys. Back then, making the job process into a national, centralized system with conference interviews at the fulcrum (followed, usually, by campus visits for a handful of finalists) was a way of taking the whole thing out of the hands of the old boys.

I think it’s really important to keep some sense of “national, centralized system” — or at least a practice that is universal. But for that to happen, everyone has to start doing Skype/phone/Google Hangout/video-conferencing interviews at once, or at least swiftly, and it has to start with the richest, poshest, most prestigious universities. A few years ago, our administrators wanted to know why it was our department had to go to MLA to interview candidates — couldn’t we do cheaper phone or video-conferencing interviews? It’s not that we were all dying to make a post-Christmas trip (this was back when MLA started on or around Dec. 27), but we were afraid that our department would look bad to the best candidates, who would also be interviewing with richer universities at the MLA. If there’s an uneven trickle of departments doing video and phone interviews, starting with the RBUs of the world, it’s just going to make things bleaker and more confusing and more stressful all around, and candidates will be shelling out money for MLA for even fewer interviews, and then trying to schedule video/phone interviews around that. (Of course, it might make the posher universities look like bigger assholes for insisting candidates come to MLA. Still, I don’t necessarily want that for them, either.) So it really has to happen pretty much all at once — like the change in dates of the conference did.

Here’s where the MLA (and other professional organizations that run conferences where interviews are held) might be of help. I realize that their word is not law and that they don’t decree or control how interviews are done, but they could strongly recommend that departments move to video/phone interviews for the first round. As Michael points out in that post I linked above, the MLA doesn’t actually make any money off the conference interviews, so it’s of no financial consequence to the organization how these interviews are done. But at some point in the 70s, they helped create this system in order to counter the old boys’ network, so they could have some influence in creating another system now. And other influential voices could join them — other organizations, present and past presidents of them, big names that everyone knows, bloggers, etc. It might take a loud sea of voices, because the MLA makes a whole lot of recommendations that get ignored (for example, if I’m not mistaken, they recommend that committees not ask for additional materials up front — but how many committees follow that?). And individually, if we know folks who are running searches next year, *especially* at prestigious places, we could urge them to set an example.

Meanwhile, I think it’s important to keep some sort of first round of interviews. Bullock is in a field that doesn’t do them — just jump right to the top three candidates, whom they invite to campus. And guess what? The field is overwhelmingly represented by people with degrees from about ten institutions, even among profs at lower ranked universities. (He’s in a social science, and some social scientist decided the crunch the numbers and publish this finding in their organization journal. This isn’t just anecdotal.) I don’t know the numbers for English, but my impression is that this is not the case in our discipline. It’s probably still true that there’s a *lot* of overlap in the 10-15 people who get first round interviews, but I suspect that that larger number allows for a broader range of candidates from a variety of programs. And from the conference interviews I’ve done (where we interview 14-15 candidates), I can tell you that there is *always* someone who looks great on paper but turns out to be not what you’re looking for in person, and *always* someone who just made it on the interview list, but who surprises and wows you in the interview, and moves up in the list. With only 3 candidates, you might get stuck with nothing but the former, and you’re unlikely to discover the latter.  And apparently, Bullock’s discipline is starting to realize this, because some places are *adding* Skype interviews to their process now (it’s still unusual, though, he says, but he thinks it’s a great idea).

I still like the idea of the conference interview, but in practice, it does seem an awful burden on candidates especially, but also on cash-strapped institutions. And I don’t see any real negative difference between an awkward hotel-room interview and a Skype interview (though phone interviews have extra challenges and awkwardness).

What say you all? How can we help make this happen in our disciplines as soon as possible?

Update: Michael Bérubé has posted a follow-up FB post (he really should just go back to blogging!) about what a post-Skype MLA without interviews would look like. The short answer: pretty damn good. I especially like his point that departments could easily interview *more* applicants via Skype over a longer amount of time instead of squeezing in 10-15 at the conference. And, for the record, I would totally drive over to a Cleveland MLA. (He suggests smaller cities could host the smaller resulting conference.)

>When dissertation directors have too much power

>Sorry for the long silence. Crazy holiday travel schedule + frantically getting ready for the semester + stupidly becoming addicted to TimeWasteBook = a blogger’s absence.

Anyway, I’m back in Rust Belt, enjoying the peace and quiet caused by a snowy weekend before the semester begins. So while Bullock makes us a new TV/Entertainment stand in his workshop, I’m catching up with all things electronic. Heck, even Pippi’s quiet and mellow. She’s dozing on the window seat that Bullock made for, occasionally looking up to watch the snow fall. Soon we’ll be out there shoveling again, but for now I have time to write a SUBSTANTIVE post. Really!

So while I was at MLA, having a good time on my part since I was neither being interviewed nor giving a paper, I was also feeling great sympathy for all those people on the market — including the 14 we were interviewing — and picking up on the crazy-stress vibe in the main conference hotels. (Btw, do you ever get the feeling that *everyone* is staring at you when you walk into those lobbies? Maybe they are, since everyone is looking for the people they’re meeting, but it makes me feel really weird.) I was also hearing everyone’s stories — successes, disappointments, frustrations, and triumphs — as well as the stories they’d heard. And one of those is what inspired the title of this post.

A friend and I were talking about whether our respective hiring committees were afraid of ABDs not finishing in time, and if we tended to prefer people with the PhD in hand or a set defense date, or whatever. And that brought up a story of a friend of this friend, whose dissertation director wouldn’t let the person file his dissertation, year after year, for about three years running. And so the person kept going out on the market as an ABD and not getting many bites and not getting a job. When the director finally let the person file, he got an embarrassment of riches in the interview department, more than one campus visit, and a job. (There were, of course, a couple of articles published in there, too.)

According to my friend — or according to her friend, the one who was prevented from filing — the reason the director wouldn’t let his student file wasn’t because the diss wasn’t finished or wasn’t good enough to be a diss. Rather, it was because it wasn’t good enough to be a book. He thought he was doing his student a favor, getting him to shape it into a book while still a student, rather than once the tenure clock started running. I have to say that when I was a grad student, I kind of thought that way, too, and so did some of my friends, especially those of us who had one or more years of dissertation fellowship. But now I think that’s messed up.

Here’s why. A graduate student on fellowship or working an assistantship makes peanuts. An assistant professor, even at the most poorly paying school, makes a lot more. But it’s not just about a couple of years of higher salary. A graduate student making peanuts isn’t paying off her credit card bills; she’s accruing interest on them. A graduate student isn’t contributing to her retirement account, and so is not only losing that year’s contributions, but also the earnings it accrues (okay, okay, let’s leave aside the tens of thousands of dollars my TIAA-CREF account lost this particular year). Add just those two things together and the financial difference is exponentially greater than just the amount of salary difference. Then there’s the fact that if you’re a professor getting any kind of raise or merit pay or cost of living adjustment — or even summer school pay — it’s likely based on your base pay. A graduate student is losing out on years of having that base pay and having it increase each year. The graduate student is likely also not saving for a down-payment on a house, saving for her kid’s college fund, or, for that matter, saving at all. Such investments and savings also (ideally) accrue value over time (again, let’s leave aside the current financial and real estate markets for the moment).

But it’s not just about money. There’s social and professional status and general self respect involved, too. I can’t begin to explain what a difference it made to my sense of authority in the classroom just to be a lecturer with a Ph.D. versus a grad student in my own grad program. Faculty treated me differently — I got invited to the secret faculty party! — and so did the students. Teaching upper division courses rather than lower div ones also went a long way to making me feel like I had some real expertise and authority in my subject. And even before I got the tenure track job, my family felt like they could stop worrying about me for once — I was finally no longer a student. It even influenced my personal life; you get a better reaction from strangers when you say “I teach at such and such a place” than you do when you say “I’m a Ph.D. student at such and such a place.”

And there’s still more that’s problematic about the dissertation director who expects a finished book rather than a dissertation, and its a problem that affects more than his individual student. First of all, a circumstance like this is an abuse of power. While it’s different in degree from the spouse who won’t let his partner have her own life, it’s not that different in kind. And the student in such cases likely acts like the abused spoused: she internalizes the “it’s for your own good” justification; she can’t bring herself to leave and start all over again (whether that means something as drastic as leaving academia or just switching advisors); and she probably tells herself that she’s partly/mostly to blame – if only she’d just write a better book. I’ve seen people who had such directors still have doubts about themselves and their work years later and it affects their productivity.

But more troubling — or perhaps just troubling on a greater scale — is the impact such expectations have on the discipline and academia in general. If dissertaton directors keep expecting more of the dissertation, hiring committees can expect more of applicants — perhaps a book contract from an ABD. And if hiring committees are expecting more, T&P committees will expect yet more — it’s two books for tenure at some places now. It’s utter madness. I know some of the directors doing this are probably justifying by thinking that they’re only preparing their charges for these increasing expectations. But isn’t it a mutually supporting system? If those of us on hiring committees see these superhuman grad students with book deals, aren’t we going to expect more of our applicants, consciously or unconsciously? So it doesn’t stop only with those of us on that end of things — the dissertation directors have to stop having such high expectations, too. I don’t think a dissertation that’s just a dissertation and one article is too much to ask of a student, or too little to make them look ready for the profession (and, in fact, I think the craft of the journal article is one that needs to be taught more explicitly in graduate school — but that’s a post for another day). But keeping your student from graduating because his dissertation isn’t yet a book is damaging to both the student and the profession.

Let me close with two quick case studies. One is me. The other is someone who graduated from college at the same time I did — indeed, from the very same college. I took three years off from school before going back for the Ph.D., and she went straight to grad school, so you’d think that this other person and I would be about 3 years apart in our “academic age,” wouldn’t you? But no, I just got tenure last year and she’s a full professor now. I think she may even have an endowed chair. Of course, there are a lot of differences between the two of us that accounts for part of this (for one, she’s a workaholic, which she herself admits). But a big chunk of that difference is that she actually finished the Ph.D. in 5 years — even doing field work for part of it — because she had a director who thought of a dissertation as a dissertation. My once-peer wrote a 150 page dissertation (in a “wordy” field – not a math or hard science). I wrote a 450 page behemoth for a director who didn’t exactly expect a finished book — and certainly didn’t keep me from graduating (I did a lot of that myself) — but did have pretty high expectations, and often referred to the thing as a book. Though to be fair, he often said things like “this is something you’ll want to think about more when you turn this into a book.” So I didn’t have the kind of director I’m troubled by in this post. But I also didn’t have the kind that my one time peer did. And I think that’s made a lot of difference in our career and life trajectories.

The profession as a whole — and especially those fields where we write books — needs actively to rethink what we expect of Ph.D. students, because the state of the market right now and in the future is likely to drive us all into more insane expectations if we don’t start setting some reasonable limits now.

>Job alert: Asst. Prof. in Medieval British Literature at UM-Flint

>To all of you medievalists in English on the market this year, I just got a flyer for a job at University of Michigan-Flint that may not have made it into the JIL yet. I’d like to think that my getting this flyer means that I’ve been invited to apply for a job, but really, I think they probably sent flyers to every medievalist in English in the Great Lakes region in the MLA directory because they’re not interviewing at MLA they’re trying to spread the word about a late advertisement and an extended deadline. So I’m doing my part for a fellow Great Lakes region branch campus.

If you want all the details, the Michigan system has a job posting website here. Once you’re there, you can search as a “guest” without registering — click on the “external candidates and temporary staff job search” link and the “visit as a guest” button. Search for Job ID 13109.

It looks like a good job: 3-3 load, all literature and mostly medieval, with opportunities to develop medieval literature courses for their new MA program. The online ad says the deadline is today, but the flyer I got shows January 18, 2008 as the deadline, and says on-campus interviews will be conducted in February (no MLA interviews).

Anyway, just wanted to spread the word.

>Finding myself: meditations on the job market

>[Note: edited to take out the Word automatic tags that screwed up how this post appeared in Bloglines.]

I haven’t talked about this on the blog yet, but in the past few weeks I’ve been actually contemplating throwing my hat in the ring for the job at Homestate U (despite Mr. Jerkwad’s presence – since he’s in another discipline, he’d be mostly avoidable, and for all I know he has reformed his jerkwad ways). I gave myself until yesterday to decide, and ultimately decided not to. Since I’ve come to that decision, I feel like I can blog about it now. Had I decided to apply, I wouldn’t have blogged about it until the process was all over, given how thin my veil of pseudonymity is.

The reasons why I thought I might apply for this job were manifold. It’s an R1 and a flagship U, and though it’s not on the top of the heap of such institutions, it would still mean a step up in prestige compared to my current job. It would also mean a bigger department and Ph.D. students, both of which have their appeal to me. And though it’s not a department with multiple medievalists – and there’s no center or institute for medieval and/or early modern studies – there are a number of early modernists in the department whose general interests overlap with mine more so than in my current department. It would also mean more money in an area where the cost of living (at least judging from the real estate – yes, I checked) isn’t any higher than here, and where Bullock and I could get a place with some acreage not too far from work, or else a house like our current one closer in. And its location in terms of lifestyle would be a step up from Rust Belt, too. It’s a very cool college town and it’s a reasonable short drive from there to my home metropolis, which has boomed in the last twenty years and become much more interesting culturally since I fled its sleepiness in the late ‘80s for the excitement of big cities. And HU’s town is really close to the western and southern suburbs of the city, where Fast Fizzy (and family) and Dad live (though farther from where Nephew and Eldest Niece live in the center of the city). And Bullock has relatives in the greater metropolitan area, too. This means I’d be more available to help out with Dad and Dad-related things (downside: dealing with Dad more!), and we’d both be closer to parts of our families. And I still know people in the area in addition to my family, including my best friend from high school.

Now, none of this would mean jack if it weren’t for the fact that the arts and sciences college of HU also has going for it an open and fair policy regarding the hiring of domestic partners in faculty positions, all posted clearly on their website. And their tenure, promotion, and hiring policies are also accessible. All of this told me that it was possible that they could hire Bullock and with tenure. Not hiring Bullock or hiring him without tenure would be a deal-breaker, because I do not want to go anywhere without him and he doesn’t want to slide back down the tenure ladder. We’re among the lucky ones: we have jobs in the same institution and never had to go through the long-distance thing like so many of you have done or are doing, and I don’t want to start doing that. (This is because we luckily met here at Rust Belt U. Of course I paid my personal relationship dues in other ways: I was unattached for 9 long years in graduate school!) But the possibility that they could hire Bullock means that I could ethically apply for the job, since it opens up the possibility that I could actually take it. Or, if were to get an offer than didn’t meet my needs – didn’t give me enough time to meet their tenure requirements or didn’t come with a tenured position for Bullock – I could have used such an offer to negotiate both with them and with Rust Belt, since I’m applying from a place of relative security and confidence. (No, I don’t have tenure yet, but I have confidence. Knock wood.) I would never, EVER apply for a job that I had no intention of taking, just to negotiate with Rust Belt, because I wouldn’t want to dick around with the prospective department. But the Homestate U job is one I could take if the conditions were right.

And I have people I can draw on for letters of recommendation without having to go back to my dissertation committee, other than my director. Had I decided to apply, I would have discussed it with the awesome chair and with Will, the senior faculty member who has been a great unofficial mentor and cheerleader for me from the hiring process through the tenure process and in between. (He has magically been on or the head of the hiring commmittee, the Department Personnel Committee at key times including this year, and also the university research committee that awards internal grants.) He’s also been a friend and he and his wife have literally fed me, housed me, and entertained me on many occasions since I moved here. I’m confident that they’d understand that the particular job offered a rare combination of professional and personal benefits that made me think I needed to apply for it, and that they would’ve written glowing letters of recommendation for me. And since both have seen me teach and give public talks, and Will knows my research and has the expertise to judge its value, those letters would have been weighty and valuable ones. And there are other people elsewhere I could have hit up, too.

Meanwhile, there are things going on at the university level here that give me pause, that make me feel like what we do in the humanities, or even in the arts and sciences in general, is not valued. I’m not sure that such an atmosphere would be different in kind at another state-supported institution, but it might be different in degree, and that would be an improvement. So would merit raises, which Homestate U gives. I work hard and I have accomplishments to show for it, only to get the same measly percentage raises everyone else gets, which ends up rewarding those with mere longevity and a stubborn refusal to retire, because their base salaries are higher simply because they’ve been around longer. And Bullock figured out that our tiny promotion bump amounts to about 25 cents per hour. Oy. That said, my problems with my current institution weren’t the primary reason I was thinking about this other job, which is a good thing: better to move for positive reasons than negative ones.

So, with all that said, doesn’t it seem like applying for this job is a good idea? Yeah, I thought so, too. Until I thought some more. And talked some more with Bullock and others. For one thing, all the reasons I gave for applying were largely about the lifestyle and conditions of work that Homestate U represents, rather than the job itself. When I saw the job, I didn’t say, “Ooh! I want that job!” I said, “Ooh! I want to live in Homestate’s town and yeah, also, that would be a good job to have.” That’s a little back-asswards. And Bullock said he could tell I was trying to talk myself into applying, which also isn’t a good sign.

Then I started to do a comparison of my job here, on a day-to-day level, with what I’d likely be doing there. Here I have a 3/2 load, but with the course release for being the grad director, that takes it down to 2/2. There, I’d have a 2/2 load and dissertating students to advise. Six of one, half dozen of the other. Here I have a lot of first-generation college students who are eager and don’t always realize how smart they are and where that could take them, and who are really struggling and working hard to make something of themselves and their lives. Yeah, they sometimes frustrate me with their fear of leaving Rust Belt, but every now and then I get to convince one to do study abroad or apply to graduate schools around the nation and get to see their worlds open up in fantastic ways. There, I’d still have some of those kids, especially from the small towns and from the working class county that’s part of greater hometown city, but I’d also have the kids from the county I grew up in, which I often refer to as a “land-locked Orange County.” Let’s just put it this way: I’m not sure I want to teach swarms of kids who drive better cars than I do. Here, I teach almost all medieval classes plus Shakespeare and intro literature and research classes thrown in, and since I’m the only medievalist, I get to run the show, teaching what I want. Maybe I’m not the *best* person to teach Old English, but I do like it and I throw myself into it. There, I’d have to share. And I wouldn’t get to teach Shakespeare again which would be too bad, because Shakespeare is *fun*! Here, I have the institutional support, resources, and time to do my research, even if it requires a month in England, for example, but I don’t have the same pressures that an R1 would, and so now that I’ve written my first book, under some pressure, I can let the next project take the time it needs to develop, and not push it out there too soon just for the sake of a second book. Here I have quick access to all the library books and research resources I need through a statewide lending system or through a quick trip to a nearby R1 with its fabulous library, open stacks, and rare books library that doesn’t care that I’m not one of their faculty. At HU I don’t know what I’ve have. Maybe just HU’s library, but even if they had a statewide system, theirs would be the best library, and without a center or institute for medieval and renaissance studies, they might not have what I’m used to.

And what’s more, I’ve got a community of medievalists here. I may be the only one in my department, but through connections I had from graduate school and the medievalist community there, I’ve become active in reading and working groups at the nearest R1, which is an easy drive away from here and includes multiple medievalists on the English faculty, as well as a scary-smart bunch of graduate student medievalists who have asked super smart questions about my works in progress. And these groups draw in the medievalist from the other regional universities and colleges that dot this part of the country, so the group is pretty big and friendly, and I never feel like a charity case given the presence of the other “outsiders.” And no one’s ever snobby about rank. Plus there’s another big, vibrant community of medievalists at the next nearest R1 a further drive away. It’s too far for me to be involved in the more informal groups, but I sometimes make it to their public talks. As for the closer one, I just spent a day there yesterday for an annual mini-conference on medieval subjects, for which the papers, presented by prominent medievalists from around the country, are pre-circulated to all attendees. It’s a fantastic event because it’s like being in the good part of graduate school again – the fantastic seminars where you learned so much from each other and from the hard but worthwhile work you did preparing for it – and then everyone goes to one of the organizer’s houses for dinner afterwards and just socializes. It’s awesome.

I really wouldn’t have that at Homestate U. Since there’s no med-ren center (as there are at both of the above mentioned R1s), there’s no critical mass of medievalists. There’s one medievalist at the other land grant university about an hour or so away, and two at the metropolitan university in the nearby metropolis, and I think that’s about it for medievalists in English. And I think I’d just feel frustrated trying to mentor English Ph.D. students interested in medieval topics without other medievalists to turn to as well. I’m fine for teaching undergrads and MA students most medieval lit topics, but not for Ph.D. students, and I’d be the only late medievalist there.

Plus, Rust Belt just hired a new person in the theater department who actually gets and likes medieval drama, and he and I are going to propose a team-taught honors course on medieval drama for Spring 2010, tied to a student production we’re proposing for the 2010 performance of the Chester cycle in Toronto. How fabulous would that be? How can I leave something like that behind? While this is all still in the proposal stage, just the thought that I’ve got a kindred spirit in the theater department who doesn’t think medieval drama is “primitive” “folk” drama is *awesome*.

So professionally, as good as Homestate U looks, I think I’ve got it pretty good here at Rust Belt. And there’s the fact that I’d potentially be trading tenure (knock wood!) for being back on the tenure-track in a department where I don’t really know their expectations and wouldn’t fully grasp them no matter how many questions I asked in interviews and visits. As for the personal, while Rust Belt has its frustrations and its sleepiness, Bullock and I do make some use of the fact that we’re near other places with more potential for excitement (not to mention better dining and shopping). And Rust Belt has its own good qualities, including a fabulous and well-endowed museum, great parks, a symphony, and an opera. We’ve put a lot of energy into trying to build a social network here and to enjoy what the area has to offer and we’re succeeding to some extent. And Bullock’s put a lot of sweat into our house, which isn’t going to pay off in the sluggish housing market here if we were to sell. Just this morning we were talking about bamboo flooring for the master bedroom (sold at our fabulous new neighborhood Costco!).

The thing is, I’m happy here. I think a lot of what was driving me to think about the market at all, and the Homestate U job in particular, was the culture of striving that I’ve been a member of at least since I took the entrance test for my private girls’ high school. Onwards and upwards. Bigger and better. Achieve! Achieve! Achieve! And though I never heard anyone at my graduate school or among my direct mentors express disappointment when their students got jobs at anything other than an R1 or a few select SLACs, I know from what people told me that it happened. (It was a big ass department. Sometimes you had to rely on reports from the various segments of it.) And so I’m sure I internalized some of that. And everywhere I’d ever been associated with in higher education prior to Rust Belt was a prestiguous R1, so it’s not surprising I picked up a lot of that ambition for prestige.

But what finally settled that slightly shrill voice in my head that was trying to convince me I was on the verge of “settling” was something Bullock told me today. He talked to his good friend from grad school who coincidentally went to the same fancy-pants undergraduate college I did (same year even, but weirdly, we didn’t know each other) and is a big mucky muck in her subfield (prestigious awards for her first book, already tenured, just got a big fat raise because another school offered her a job which ultimately she decided to turn down, etc., etc. – but unlike Mr. Jerkwad, she never called me a slut in college, so I still like her), and told her about my contemplating applying for this other job. And she said something along the lines of, “What does she need to move for, when she’s already making a national reputation for herself where she is?” And that calmed the over-achieving Lisa Simpson in me. While I wouldn’t say exactly that I have a national reputation, people I’ve never met before do tell me they’ve read my work and compliment me on it. Academia has changed. Once upon a time you had to be at an R1 to be “someone,” to contribute to the wider field. You needed their libraries and their resources and their connections. But now you can be “someone” just about anywhere. Smart research and smart teaching gets done all over the place. What matters is what place – both institution and location – is right for you. And what’s right for me now is my life, all of it, here in Rust Belt.