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Clear as Mud

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Clear as Mud

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And so, the first time around the mysterious academic job cycle came to an end. In a way, it was quite opportune for things to work out as they did. At the end of a long year, I am left with two thoughts. One, I'm glad I got to see. Two, I'm not sure if I want to see any more.

I decided to write this post because it seems so much of this world is hidden. As a faculty member recently put it, "Academic bureaucracy is as transparent as mud." So, with mud on my boots, I'm detailing my first year on the job market below in hopes that it may help someone in the future.

I applied to 21 positions.

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I had four Skype interviews, one phone interview, and two interviews at the American Historical Association (AHA). (I'm still wondering why and how interviewing at the AHA is still a thing). Three of the Skype interviews led to on-campus interviews. One of those was at an R1 school and two were at liberal arts schools. I've heard from several faculty members how this constituted a "good year." Despite finishing my Ph.D. in four years as well as having extensive teaching and public history experience, I had doubts whether I would be a competitive candidate. When I asked for theories about how all the interviews happened—since I was told repeatedly that it was typical to not hear back the first year on the job market—the responses usually referred either to my law degree and CA bar license or to my "topical and timely" research. Since I cannot know for sure, I'll leave it up to you to decipher. That is, of course, assuming there is any method to the madness.

My first ever on-campus interview was at an R1 school a few weeks before I turned in the first full draft of my dissertation to the committee. I'm not saying that to be cavalier, but I am curious of the dynamics between what is rumored as purported requirements before even applying to certain jobs and the ways in which the interview process can actually play out. I had no academic publications and an R1 school invited me for an on campus interview? Why?

The interview was quite the experience. The most surprising part to me was that when I inquired about whether the terms of tenure were negotiable—a pattern that would continue with most of the other interviews—the responses were underwhelming (and somewhat condescending since most people seemed to assume I did not understand how tenure worked). I simply wanted to know if they were the sort of people who thought outside the box. Meetings were followed by what felt like a very confrontational lunch session (for other reasons I cannot quite yet understand) where it seemed like I was testifying before Congress.

Meeting the graduate students provided a temporary reprieve. I asked them where they were at in the program and when some mentioned their apprehension of starting their teaching assignments, I offered some advice that I hope was helpful (namely, to use monographs, teach topics of familiarity, and clock out after 20 hours to focus on research and writing). We then had a great time discussing what books should actually be assigned in historical methods so we can stop the cycle of generational grad student confusion stemming from that particular class. Coming directly from law school, that confusion lasted more than a year for me and was finally alleviated when a friend gave me Callum Brown's Postmodernism for Historians. That Christmas gift may have saved my graduate school education.

The full day of meetings at the R1 school ended with the job talk. Knowing that the end of my talk would include some heavy content (in particular, tragic deaths at a detention center), I had to start off by engaging people with laughter. There is something quite entertaining (and challenging, of course!) about trying to get a room full of academics, who are also complete strangers, to laugh. I was definitely lucky because that particular audience brought the energy. As I walked back and forth, sometimes swinging my arms upward and other times pointing to the screen, it seemed they kept their focus on me the whole time. Regardless of whether they laughed, smiled, or nodded for the puns and sarcasm out of politeness or genuine entertainment, it certainly helped me perform at a higher level.

It appeared to me that my talk was well received:

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Despite this, the Q&A session after my talk unfortunately provided me with the answer to my outside-the-box question. While many of the questions focused on historiography, future research, and teaching methodologies—with one faculty member asking me what "adaptive learning" was—the search committee's questions attempted to place me squarely within the parameters of the box of their ideal candidate. Despite recognizing their attempts to fit me into their box, I tried not to waver in my resolve to remain outside of it. What a fun game to play. When my answers were received with eye rolls visible to me from the front of the room, I had a feeling how the rest of the game would play out.

I did not hear back. Months later, I followed up out of curiosity. At least the chair apologized for the delay...

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At my second on-campus interview, a dean asked me whether I had a minimum salary. Seeing as how I have been in school my whole life and have never really had a full-time job, this was puzzling. I managed to muster up a quiet, "Honestly, I don't." Not to say that I actually don't but I was confused why someone would ask about a minimum salary before a contract is discussed. Wouldn't that be showing your hand even before the game begins? 

When I spoke with a group of students at that school over lunch, I mentioned how crazy it was that law schools tend to ignore prominent historical court cases like Dred Scott, Plessy, Buck, and Korematsu, and train attorneys in criminal law and procedure without ever mentioning mass incarceration. After I encouraged all the students to stay in touch if they had further questions, two African American students stayed after the meeting to pick up my business card. As we walked, one of them said, "I'm glad you said those things. I've never heard a professor say that."

That rejection notice came by snail mail typed on a letterhead.

Other notices continued by email.

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Interviewing at the AHA was a fascinating ordeal. When I inquired whether I needed to pay for the whole conference in order to attend the interviews since I did not plan on attending the conference, I received the following response: "If the interview is at a table in the Job Center room, you do need a badge. Our policy is that interviews in rooms require badges as well, but there won't be anyone checking at those doors. We do hope that all job candidates are able to take some time to take advantage of all the offerings at the meeting, such as the Professional Pathways career development space. We do have reduced rates for job seekers under the Unemployed/Underemployed or Student category that you would be welcome to utilize. We don't have single-day passes." Both my interviews were in rooms (one at the end of a long hallway several floors above where the conference was taking place). I had a badge just in case. After four years in Arizona, one gets used to carrying papers to justify being places.

A faculty member at one of the AHA interviews replied to my thank you email with an offer to provide feedback. I was curious so I followed up.

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The comment about primary sources made me laugh. I'll offer an explanation for the record. During my research—ongoing at the time of the interview—I analyzed ICE reports of people who died in detention. I was told I had to take them seriously for my work to be considered "serious scholarship." But the reports spun tales so far removed from reality that they veered into the comical. So, it was a bit difficult to take the mention of primary sources seriously. Not only do I run all my classes in a discussion format, I use primary sources in almost every class; however, since I do not teach the exact same class twice, they are usually based on a timely topic I find interesting during class prep the day before. After all, I had just assumed Alfred North Whitehead was on to something when he wrote, "Knowledge does not keep any better than fish." But maybe I need to memorize a fixed list of primary sources?

The main "political view"—I contest the moniker—I may have expressed during the interview was that my teaching philosophy stems from a prison abolitionist perspective because people should not be held in cages. So, should I have not mentioned that or toned it down? Having taught immigration history courses in Arizona, I have had students who wanted to change the asylum policy to no longer grant asylum to members of the LGBTQ community,  to plant snipers at the border to shoot people coming in, and to bring pulled pork to class (which coincided with Ramadan) knowing there were Muslim students in attendance. Having a "range of political views" is certainly one way to put it. Sometimes I wonder how far this "range" can possibly extend in a society where both political parties agree on wars and prisons. Yet, even then, prison abolitionism is not my "political view." It's a lens through which I teach historical events and processes as a way to understand the world considering this particular society's tendency to resort to the cage en masse. How did society function for most of human history without human cages?

While I detest politics of thought, this seems rather unsurprising in a profession that has long delayed the field's assessment of its own relation to the state, unable to stand against the tide of state interests. Will historians ever take the high road? For instance, consider the increasing move toward online teaching. Are we open to discussing the implications of online history teaching under the sometimes heavy-handed interference (or, guidance, depending on your experience) of "instructional designers," a growing field with roots in military training? Or, are such discussions complicated by the "politics" of it all as departments grapple with fiscal concerns and appeasing higher-ups? Are historians willing to rise above? As a brilliant colleague once remarked, "I am still in shock that professors haven't freed themselves from the swamp of American politics." One must look no further than the transparent-as-mud search process to see the consequences when those unable to escape the political swamp hold sway. There were three people at that particular AHA interview. Did that mean a single person broke the tie because of "politics"? I wonder why historical knowledge and teaching ability, both uncontested, were not able to overcome.

Leaving aside all that, what struck me most about this job cycle was the unoriginality of the questions asked. It seemed at each interview, everyone in the search committee had a neat little form in front of them that they filled out as I talked. They asked the same questions, took turns going down their list, and did not often stray regardless of whatever I felt like throwing into my answer. That was disappointing. As an oral history practitioner itching to go off-script based on verbal and non-verbal cues, it was remarkable how collectively terrible the follow-up questions were. But I suppose it must be that way to make sure the candidate fits the box(es) and whatever standard of equality is presupposed to maintain external credibility of the search process. I hear appearances are everything. And I guess I should not be surprised being in a society that has long embraced mandatory minimums as the gold standard of equal protection. But I certainly wish it was different. So, be cautious, future job seekers—make sure you fit the box(es).

Yet, even then, mysterious circumstances (or, "politics") can uncheck the box(es).

The last email, which appears at the start of this blog, was bittersweet. After the job talk/teaching demonstration, the chair was ready to offer me the job and told me in no uncertain terms that I was their first choice. First choice. The chair said to expect a call from the dean with an offer and that I should feel free to negotiate. It felt like I had made it. The email a week later informing me that I had not was a reminder that perhaps it was not a world in which I wanted to make it, if making it required fitting into a box subject to mysterious circumstances. First choice or not. I want to say that I will take some time to work on the "politics" of my research and teaching as recommended but that seems highly unlikely bordering on never. Trying to fit into a box on a form seems absolutely terrifying, even more so when fitting into the box ultimately becomes irrelevant.

What I have grown to love most about history is the potential to transcend the box in whatever shape or form. Going through this job cycle, however, it was heartbreaking to see that potential not realized, the discussion points never picked up, and the hints dropped never pursued. I wish someone had asked how I knew what blood looks like on tar. Or if I could identify detention centers with my eyes closed. Or what it feels like to walk a desert filled with ghosts. I've been wondering if it is just me. Norman Maclean once wrote, "If a storyteller thinks enough of storytelling to regard it as a calling, unlike a historian he cannot turn from the sufferings of his characters. A storyteller, unlike a historian, must follow compassion wherever it leads him. He must be able to accompany his characters, even into smoke and fire, and bear witness to what they thought and felt even when they themselves no longer knew." If the distinction holds, perhaps the title most fitting for me was never a historian.

Regardless, I'm grateful for all that I saw this past year. I traveled to parts of the country that I'd never been to before. I told more than 100 people about my research and teaching. I honed my presentation skills. And I still smile when I think about the time during one of the on campus visits when I walked myself across the street from the hotel to a restaurant for a dinner meeting and the chair was visibly upset that I had done so without waiting to be escorted. One would think a candidate being able to find their own way would garner at least a little respect rather than annoyance.

But clearly, there's so much I don't understand.

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