The State of Things; or Getting Back on the Horse.

The State of Things; or Getting Back on the Horse.

Posted on: Mon, 09/03/2018 - 11:00 By: Matt

As I write this, I am in College Station, Texas, where I’ll be for the next year while my spouse finishes up her degree.  So in some ways, writing the post about the peripatetic life was a bit premature, as was the photo project.  I’ll still keep the section up on the site, but it will be more sporadic (as it has been for the last couple of months) and the last major door changes were during my trip down here from Hamilton and did not lend themselves to pictures. Instead, I’ll take pictures of things I consider of interest. If you are reading this, tell me what you think.

I say my last post was a “bit” premature because the respite is only for a year and then we’ll both need to figure out what the next step is.  I am on the academic job market again, and because of that I want to take a moment and reflect on the odd state of my career and the sort of bifurcated nature of things. 

Currently, I’m working as an adjunct at the local community college so that I keep my head in the game, as it were, and have some money coming in while I’m out here. There’s certainly a degree of anxiety about this – I have said to more than one person that I feel like the kid who went out to conquer the world and ended up back home crashing on their parents’ couch. And by some accounts, this (and, to some extent, the fact that I was a postdoctoral researcher at all) can be seen as a mark of failure, because we’re still beholden to this trajectory of the academic career that starts with graduate school and transitions to a tenure track job. Indeed, there are some people who do that, or who get hired at the campuses where they did their visiting professorship on a full-time basis. But, as this piece that’s making the rounds on social media points out, that is a rarer and rarer occurrence. People on hiring committees who have paid attention are aware of this, but there’s always the crap shoot of who is actually on the hiring committee.  Are they paying attention to the larger state of the discipline, are they too busy being engaged in theory squabbles and battles with their administration to consider life outside of their relatively comfortable bubble, or are they like the advisor I heard a few years ago, actively telling their student that (paraphrased) “the problem is that the proliferation of these postdocs means that people who would have gotten out can stay in and that makes it worse for everyone.”

So there’s that attitude, and ones like it but internalized rather than expressed, to contend with. There’s also the odd ways that neo-liberalism plays into it.  Not just in the well-documented adjunct crisis – which is only a “crisis” because we as a society are not willing to fund education at the level it deserves and have developed a whole administrative class that takes their cues from the worst elements of “just in time” staffing for businesses – but in the fact that people with desired skills are often left out in the cold.

I have a small sideline in invited talks to groups on campuses regarding what I call “do-it-yourself” or “radically transparent” digital humanities, often coinciding with some discussion of my academic work and how the technical aspects facilitate, rather than subsume, the scholarly argument I’m proposing. I’ve written on the subject. My feeling is that the grant-funded model of digital humanities work, housed in centers, is not ultimately sustainable and that training needs to happen on the ground so that the individual researcher can continue the work even if grant funding dries up. It’s how I try to do my research, and it takes a long time and is slow. But it also doesn’t require the grant treadmill, a staff on the payroll to keep things running, or the latest and greatest piece of hardware or software. I think it’s useful, and others seem to agree since I keep getting asked to come to these campuses and speak. But the people who invite me to speak, who see value in what I do (and I am grateful that they do so) often are not the people hiring, or if they are they have to consider the needs of the whole department.  There simply isn't the money to do everything they're expected to do, so I come and sprinkle a little wisdom here and there and move on. It's a fairly unstable way to do things, and with the adjuncting gig it will be much harder. But you can't live off of small stipends and one or two free dinners per semester.

Likewise, I am not slacking when it comes to scholarly production, either -- or at least I don't think I am. I’ve either been asked to edit things or edited volumes I have proposed are picked up by publishers. I regularly propose panels at Kalamazoo, and either organize or chair those sessions. I’ll hopefully be doing so again this year at a panel on material Lydgate – I haven’t heard back from the session organizers yet. I’m helping organize a panel again (although the lion’s share of the credit for that work goes to Heather Mitchell-Buck) at this next year’s Sewanee Medieval Colloquium. Assuming I’m ever in a place longer than two years and have enough stability I’ll finish the monograph, but to be honest unless it’s going to “count” I am not in a hurry to do so. I love the idea of knowledge for knowledge's sake, but academic monographs don't accrue royalties and I've become accustomed to eating on a daily basis. So there’s that, too.

My point in mentioning all this is not to toot my own horn – I don’t think it deserves tooting. It’s to point out that by every metric of the profession I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, and it is still not enough to secure a tenure-track job. I have come very, very close, but our moment denigrates history and literature. When it does acknowledge it, it requires it be put in the service of competing hagiographies of what it means to be a human, an American, or “us,” depending on how you want to measure things. The theoretical infighting that results from those competing hagiographies is becoming calcified into a vast distrust of one discipline by the other, which has a real effect on people who are not in secure positions. Meanwhile, beyond that infighting our students are being told that you can’t get a job with a bachelor’s degree in the humanities, despite evidence indicating that this is not true.

Hopefully, this year is different. Every year I do better than I did the year before on the market, and there’s not much “better” I can do at this point.  Maybe the relatively stable nature of things (although without firm access to the databases I need thanks to the push towards password-protecting access at university libraries) will allow me to feel more productive and get some solid work done. In any case, I will endeavor to be more active about chronicling things here in this channel on the site.

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