Choosing a College

By the way, a great measure of whether a school (or a department) is worth attending is what happens after graduation. If professors just forget about their students’ existence two minutes after the graduation ceremony, make no effort to place them in jobs, don’t forward information on employment opportunities, don’t speak to local employers about the graduates, etc. – that’s not a good school.

Our graduation ceremony took place in early May, and since then, I’ve been doing a lot of this kind of work. Everybody should try to locate a recent graduate of their department (this is super easy to do through LinkedIn) before choosing a college to attend and ask how often the school has been in touch for anything other than requests for money.

Academic Job Search: How to Write a Cover Letter?

I know that this post is not appearing in a very timely manner since people normally go on the job market in the Fall or, at the very latest, in winter. But I think it’s still a good idea to make this information available to those who are preparing to start looking for a job in academia in the near (or not so near) future. The post will be long and since it is hardly of much interest to people who are not on the academic job market, I will put half of it under the fold. (There are funny stories under the fold, though.)

Now that I am “a real professor”, I have started working on search committees that evaluate candidates for academic positions. This has been an eye-opening experience for me. If only I had understood how the academic job search works from the inside (i.e. from the perspective of the employers), my own job search would have been completely different. Of course, I ended up with the job of my dreams, but that was sheer luck. As I’m working on my search committees, I’m realizing how horribly and frequently I screwed up during my time on the market.

In this series of posts, I want to share the insights that I have gleaned into the academic job search process with my readers. To begin with, I will discuss how one should write a cover letter. What you need to remember is that the market is over-saturated and search committees have to sift through hundreds of portfolios (or dozens if the search is extremely specific, say a Chair search.) This is why it is not a good idea to write a 6-page-long description of your intellectual journey. This is what I did and only now have I started to realize what an irredeemable idiot I was. That cover letter would have made an excellent blog post but, in its capacity as a cover letter, it sucked something fierce.

A cover letter should be tailored very specifically to each job announcement you are responding to. I know it’s an incredible drag but that’s the only way. Remember that members of a search committee have a list of requirements for their position, and as they sift through 300 portfolios, they tick off boxes on that list. You win if you make that process as easy as possible for them. This will allow you to make the short list of people who will be interviewed by phone (Skype, at the MLA, etc.)

So how do you tailor your cover letter in practice? Here is a sample job announcement that I have created:

Assistant Professor, tenure-track. A PhD in hand or an ABD near completion. The Department of Modern Languages and Literature at Illinois State University in Alton is looking for a specialist in French Literature with a specialization in the History and Culture of Quebec and a demonstrable capacity to teach courses in Advanced French Grammar and Conversation. An active research agenda is a must. Native or near-native command of French. An experience supervising language instructors is highly desired. Needs to be familiar with ACTFL and NCATE guidelines for proficiency testing.

You need to pick this job announcement apart and make a list of criteria this department is looking for in a candidate. Then, you address each criteria in your cover letter. If you can address them in the order in which they appear in the announcement, that’s even better.

Continue reading “Academic Job Search: How to Write a Cover Letter?”

What Kind of Business Practices?

In 2007-8, when the recession hit, most universities stopped hiring people for tenure-track positions. A little over a half of the universities where I applied for a job in 2007-8 and 2008-9 replied saying that the search had been cancelled due to budget constraints. Instead, universities started to create an ever-growing number of contingent teaching positions at an even faster pace than before.

There was a university, however, that adopted a different strategy. It responded to the recession not with lay-offs and cancellations of tenured positions but by hiring aggressively. In 2007-8, this university hired 45 new tenure-track faculty members. In 2008-9, it hired even more people. Fifty-three new scholars entered the university in the rank of tenure-track Assistant Professor in that year and I was among them. Next year, three dozen new TT professors were hired.

During the new employee orientation, these new hires were told insistently and repeatedly, “We want you to get tenure with us. We will do all we can to facilitate your tenure-track progress.” And it was all true. Since then, the university has demonstrated that it has real commitment to supporting the professional aspirations of these new hires. At the same time, the number of new contingent faculty members who were hired by this university during each of the academic years in question can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

These tenure-track hires were people who had graduated from fantastic graduate programs and had suddenly discovered that nobody needed them because of the recession. The university I’m talking about used this opportunity to hire brilliant, enthusiastic young academics who will raise the research profile of the school dramatically and are already doing so. Since the work conditions are very good and the benefits are very generous, this large group of new hires has the time and the energy to explore new teaching strategies and connect to the students on a personal level. As a result, everybody wins.

We keep hearing that universities are starting to act like businesses and it harms academia at large. The problem, however, is not only that we adopt business models but that we adopt really bad business models. Companies that operate on the revolving-door model, that hire people, squeeze them dry and throw them out within a few years represent a very poor, unproductive approach to business. They are oriented towards a short-term profit-making and soon create a very bad reputation for themselves. To give just one example, my sister and her business partner have created a very successful business from the ground and were aided greatly in that effort by the fact that their chief competitor, a big, well-established old company had abandoned its standards of excellence and had become a revolving-door place of employment. Now, the clients are abandoning it in droves and seeking out competitors who attract and retain talented, loyal employees.

I often have a feeling that when colleges hire administrators with a background in business, they select people whose business skills are not very good. They frequently don’t even realize that treating employees like crap and offering them no opportunities to grow within the company is a stupid practice both in business and in academia.


I have spent the entire day today grading my students’ lab assignments that I had created on my own and planned strategically to enhance the learning. Then, I graded written homework assignments which I have students prepare for every single day of class. Students grumble that this is a lot of work but, at the end of the semester, they always tell me that these written exercises and fun lab assignments made all the difference in their learning. After finishing grading, I prepared a series of original activities for next week’s classes because I don’t like teaching to the textbook. Even when I use the textbook in class, I still transform the exercises to make them fun for the students.

What you have to understand is that I am not obligated to do any of this work. Nobody will know if I don’t and my career will in no way suffer if I stop doing these things from now on. I do them because I’m planning to spend a long time working at this university and it matters to me that students do well in language courses. If I don’t work as hard as I can teaching them the Spanish language, I will find it more problematic to teach them literature and to direct their Senior Projects. The prestige of our department and, ultimately, my entire university will suffer if I graduate students who are not very good. And since I’m affiliated with this university, it matters to me a lot that our diploma mean something positive.

Our contingent faculty members don’t do any of extra things I do in the courses they teach. For lab, they make students spend a certain number of minutes in the physical building of the lab, giving them grades irrespective of whether students spend those minutes playing online poker or updating their Facebook status. They very rarely make the effort to speak only Spanish in class because that’s a lot of work and you need to break down a lot of resistance to do that.

I, of course, could never blame the contingent faculty for not doing as much for the students as I do. They are paid a pittance for teaching a much greater load than I do. I have a lot of free time that allows me to grade more and invest more time into class prep. An instructor who has to run from one temporary teaching gig to another has to spend so much more time to make at least half of what I do that nobody can reasonably expect her to practice the leisurely approach to teaching that a tenure-track faculty member has. The contingent faculty don’t experience any feelings of allegiance to the university and don’t see any continuity in what they do because they never know if their contracts will be renewed next year.

Things are quite good at my department in terms of the tenured / tenure-track professors versus contingent faculty ratio. We keep hiring people into tenure-line positions and are even transforming an instructorship into a tenure-line job right now. This is pretty good given that most colleges in this country are doing the opposite. My university at large mostly follows the same trend. The number of contingent part-time faculty doesn’t grow nearly as fast as the tenure-line faculty*.

Other schools, however, are falling all over themselves in their rush to close down tenure lines and hire adjuncts and instructors to do the teaching that used to be done by professors. Some schools hand over the teaching of all lower-level courses to contingent faculty and only have tenured faculty teach higher-level and graduate courses. This is a disastrous practice.

I know a university that adopted this strategy and, within just a few years, lost almost all of its students majoring in Spanish.  The department had endless meetings trying to figure out why the students had left the program. A few conversations with the students, however, made it clear to me that they saw no continuity in the program and didn’t want to wait for years to have some contact with permanent faculty members. The quality of instruction at the lower level was also abysmally low because you can’t expect anything better from grievously overworked and underpaid people who have no reason to care about the results of their labor. Even when the number of Spanish Majors at this, formerly legendary department, dropped to 3, the administration did nothing to stop the erosion of tenure by the creeping adjunctification.

Substituting tenure-line positions with contingent teaching faculty is a very stupid and unproductive idea. It looks like it saves some money in the short-term perspective. However, it does huge damage to the university long-term. College teaching should be done by people who have time and energy to explore the most recent teaching methodologies, who do good, up-to-date research in their disciplines, who have enough leisure to come up with new and inventive ways of delivering the material. This is why the concept of tenure was first invented: it is practical, it ensures the best quality of teaching, it is what’s best not only for educators but also for students.

You have no idea how often during our departmental meetings we run into a wall because the only solution to a department-wide problem that really hampers our work is the fact that we have contingent faculty teaching some of the courses.

Making contingent labor force grow in academia is a huge huge mistake. If anything will bring down the entire system of higher education in the US, it will be this single excruciatingly stupid practice of saving small, insignificant amounts of money by closing down tenure-track positions. At most universities, getting rid of a small percentage of needless administrators or letting go of an athletics program that costs millions would allow to transform instructorships back into tenure lines. And that would immediately boost the academic, scholarly and, ultimately, financial productivity of a university that would adopt this intelligent strategy.

* I will explain in a separate post why this happens and how it’s working out for my university.

Yet Another Debacle at Yale

A popular professor at Yale moved his course to a smaller auditorium. He made this decision because the smaller facility has no Wi-Fi and the students will not be distracting by Internet browsing and texting. As a result, only 250 (as opposed to the regular 500) students managed to enroll.

Immediately, outrage ensued. Here is an example of what the opponents of Professor’s Nemerov are saying:

As an alum with a child currently at Yale, this is very disappointing news. One of the hallmarks of the Yale College academic experience used to be free access to almost any class. Courses offered in lecture format were never capped; only college seminars had limited enrollments, and these were advertised in the Blue Book in advance. In short, one was guaranteed a spot in any lecture class that struck one’s interest. . . A grounding in Art History is essential to the formation of a well educated person. By all accounts Prof. Nemerov is an inspiring lecturer; I fear that, in seeking the comforts and superior technology of the YUAG auditorium, he is forsaking the opportunity to shape hundreds of minds over the years. I hope that he will reconsider.

The discussion of this story has its participants split into the “Wi-Fi good /  prof bad” versus “”Wi-Fi bad /  prof good” camps. Now, notice that the easiest solution to the entire issue is not even occurring to anybody. Two thirds of all undergrad courses at Yale are not taught by professors. They are taught by contingent faculty and graduate students. As a result, students jump at every opportunity to see an actual specialist with an actual PhD diploma and a record of publications in the field. This is how classes end up with such huge enrollments.

Why not just start hiring more people into tenure-track positions, you’ll ask. I’m asking myself the same question. Sadly, Yale’s administration is not.

Now There Is Really Nobody to Vote For

Can you guess who said this recently?

We are putting colleges on notice — you can’t keep — you can’t assume that you’ll just jack up tuition every single year. If you can’t stop tuition from going up, then the funding you get from taxpayers each year will go down. We should push colleges to do better. We should hold them accountable if they don’t.

And this (the same person):

We call this — one of the things that we’re doing at the Consumer Finance Protection Board that I just set up with Richard Cordray — (applause) — is to make sure that young people understand the financing of colleges. He calls it, “Know Before You Owe.” (Laughter.) Know before you owe. So we want to push more information out so consumers can make good choices, so you as consumers of higher education understand what it is that you’re getting.

And the following (still the same guy):

 We’re successful because we have an outstanding military — that costs money.

To resume:

– college students are consumers, which makes imposing the business model on academia a must;

– colleges must be forced into even more cuts, which makes the further erosion of the concept of tenure inevitable. One over-extended adjunct can do the teaching of 3 profs. As for research, who the hell needs it anyways? So, adjuncts in, professors out;

– the money that is squeezed out from public universities should be pored into the military because there is always a dinky little war that needs to be waged somewhere to keep Pentagon happy. And private contractors, too. Yippee.

I know that you are all aware that these are excerpts from a recent speech by President Obama. And that’s the most progressive option we get.

OK, so how am I supposed to indoctrinate my students when I’m very disappointed with all of the candidates there are? I have to teach tomorrow, people, so we need to come up with something. I can’t let a whole day of classes go without some nice indoctrination.

How to Motivate Young Academics

I have a genius proposal as to how to promote enthusiasm for teaching among new faculty members and get them to love their students.

The proposal is very simple, it costs nothing to implement, and the results will be spectacular. Freshly minted PhDs who enter colleges as new Assistant Professors should be given only Freshman Seminars to teach for the first two years of their tenure track.

Those young academics who survive this ordeal will never complain about teaching or their students again. Higher-level students they will get to teach after the Freshman Seminars will seem absolutely brilliant to them. And they will feel so grateful to their administrators for getting them out of teaching freshmen that their loyalty to their college will be limitless.

I taught freshmen only once, last semester. As a result, the more advanced students I have now seem almost bizarrely intelligent, hardworking, responsible, mature, and enthusiastic about learning. Imagine, none of them spend half of the class period chanting “I want multiple choice!” And when I come into the classroom and greet them, they greet me, too. They also sign their emails.

“I’m not sure if I ever taught a Freshman Seminar,” a colleague says pensively.

“If you are not sure, then you haven’t taught it,” I say. “This is not an experience one is likely to forget.”

Can You Sexually Harass With a Public Lecture?

If you haven’t been following Professor Gilbert’s story, here is a recap. This tenured professor at the University of Denver was banned from campus after two graduate students in his course “Domestic Consequences of the Drug War” complained that the professor sexually harassed them by the content of their lectures. Yes, I know that this sounds wackadoo, but it’s Denver, what do you expect?

The professor made these anonymous complainants feel harassed by – get this – bringing an art deco vibrator into the classroom during a discussion of how sexuality was theorized historically and by discussing studies linking masturbation to prostate health. Of course, the course unit where these egregious offences happened was titled “Drugs and Sin in American Life: from masturbation and prostitution to alcohol and drugs.” The prissy fools who find a scholarly discussion of masturbation to be intolerable could have chosen to skip the class. What fun would that have been, though? They chose to attend and feel harassed by the discussion.

This is a 75-year-old prof with an unblemished record who is being banned from campus and enjoined from having any contact with students because he talked about masturbation and showed an antique vibrator to graduate students. There was no formal investigation, the numerous pleas on behalf of this distinguished scholar by his peers at different institutions have been disregarded, the attempts by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) to start a discussion with the university about this issue have been ignored:

In letter correspondences to DU, the AAUP and FIRE have not only urged the university to revisit its decision upholding the sexual harassment charges against Gilbert, but also the university’s policies for sexual harassment cases and the university’s case review process.

“The University of Denver is treating its adult students like children who are too fragile to hear academic talk about sex and drugs,” said Adam Kissel, the vice president of programs at FIRE, in an article published on the FIRE website on Dec. 12, 2011.

The situation is wrong on so many levels that I don’t know where to begin. The very real issue of sexual harassment on campus is completely trivialized by a pair of officious idiots who don’t see the difference between a prof stopping them in the hallway to whisper “So how often do you masturbate?” and a prof discussing the societal perception of masturbation in the classroom. Vindictive students who dislike a prof for being a tough grader or committing the unpardonable sin of trying to make them think discover a perfect way to punish that pesky scholar. Profs are forced to start self-censoring for fear that, say, showing Goya’s famous painting “The Naked Maja” will be interpreted as distribution of pornography. I have a lot to say about this painting but I have excluded it from my lecture on Goya because  I’m afraid of idiots.

The good news is that Professor Gilbert will now resume teaching his “Domestic Consequences of the Drug War” course. He will require that all students sign a statement saying that they understand what the course will be about and what topic will be discussed. Of course,we all know that if some idiot wants to feel harassed by an intellectual discussion, they will do so in spite of signing any statement.

Quote of the Week

The real danger is that the departments of English are to become service departments, functioning in the name of commerce. Across the board, those subdisciplines which have moved in during literature’s waning hegemony (technical writing, cultural studies, composition/rhetoric, linguistics/TESOL) can all easily be articulated as pure service functions to the educational factory’s imperative to get people ready to work.

Creative writing’s sad responsibility in this eventuality then would be to administer the last rites of the imagination to children damaged beyond redemption on their way to the great maw of America, Inc.

Curtis White, Monstrous Possibility (1998).

Cool, huh? On the one hand, one can’t deny that the attempts to commercialize the Humanities have done incalculable damage to the system of higher education. On the other hand, though, you can practically hear White gnashing his teeth at the idea that all those proles who see having a job as a sine qua non of their existence dare to invade his ivory tower. Unless you have a trust fund that makes work a choice rather than a necessity on a par with breathing, White has no use for you.

This quote brings to mind all of those folks in my grad school for rich kids who kept telling me that the need to graduate and find a job as soon as possible meant I could never be a real scholar. Precisely because I remember only too well the political allegiances of the people who claimed one couldn’t develop intellectually without a trip to Europe at least once a year, I was not at all surprised to discover that Curtis White is a Marxist. Nobody despises the working people quite as much as Marxists.

Do Academics Defend Pedophiles?

We, the academics, are a source of all ills. Whenever anything goes wrong in our society, blame those commie pinko hippie feminist postmodern Baudrillard-reading Kristeva-quoting frappuccino-chugging enemies of humanity.

Not only do we pollute the minds of our impressionable adult students, we also pervert little kids. How do we manage to do this if there are no little kids on campuses? By spreading vicious pedophilic propaganda through our research, of course. Don’t you know that “research” is a horribly dangerous thing that undermines the things our society holds most sacred? Aren’t these vile academics the same people who brought us this completely invented evolution theory? And after you defend evolution, the next step is logically to promote pedophilia.

Anne Hendershott heard that some academic somewhere said (we don’t even know in which context) that “childhood innocence” is a fantasy. Another academic uttered a very boring platitude that “a child of seven may have built an elaborate set of sexual understandings and codes which would baffle many adults.” Hendershott must be the only person in the world unaware of the well-known fact that children of seven are hypersexual and that this biological reality in no way excuses pedophiles. She immediately fired off an angry article about horrible academics plotting to pervert little kids.

The article is, of course, just standard academia-bashing. We all know how much I detest pedophiles. Still, one could easily pluck some quotes out of my own doctoral dissertation to make me look like a huge pedophile. I also discuss in my classes that childhood is a socially constructed phenomenon of very recent origins. Academics study a variety of subjects that tend to shock when recounted in the language of a tabloid. However, the idea that academics infiltrate the university presses to spread their propaganda in books that maybe 20 people will get to read (and that’s wildly optimistic) is kind of silly. The greatest propaganda of pedophilia is how famous actors kiss Polanski’s ass in public.

Hendershott isn’t interested in that at all, though. An attentive reader will soon realize that pedophiles are not the greatest aim of her rage. The article is filed under the tags “homosexuality, pedophilia.” In the middle of the article we see the following advertisement:

Given that most instances of child abuse are perpetrated within a child’s own family, this exhortation tells us that Hendershott doesn’t give a rat’s ass about abused children. She simply wants to attack the two groups she hates the most: academics and gays. Then, of course, there are gay academics, which is a reality that, I’m sure, Hendershott finds very traumatic. She cannot confess that because in the academic environment homophobia makes you a pariah. This is why she masks her hatred of gays behind a completely spurious concern about non-existing movement of academic defenders of pedophilia.

I will now let you guess who is to blame, according to the very stupid, nasty, homophobic Hendershott, for the (again, completely spurious) tolerance for women who pervert little girls? Right you are, feminists!

I have to ask, why does King’s College in New York employ this vicious freakazoid?