Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Babies: A Movie Review

Here's another movie review that continues in the "grand" tradition of this blog - reviewing movies that are really not that new.  Babies is a documentary film that came out in 2010 and is about four babies' lives from "first breath to first step", one from Namibia, one from Mongolia, one from Japan, and one from the USA.  I remember seeing reviews of this movie and thinking, "Really?"  It didn't strike me at the time that it'd be such a great concept.  I mean, I'm a mother - I watch my baby do stuff all day, and while I occasionally find it fascinating, more often than not I find it, well, normal and therefore rather boring. 

This must be one of the reasons why the director had to push this idea to several people before finding someone else willing to work with it.  It must also be one of the reasons why the videographer would travel to these places and spend days there, only to return with one "good" short worth putting in the film.  (Though of course, this isn't unlike the process of writing - I aim to write a couple pages a day, but much of it is definitely not staying in the book...)

I was all set to view the documentary as some kind of social commentary: you know, Western industrialized nations versus less industrialized nations and how babies do, comparatively.  Or, people with "stuff" versus people without "stuff".  Or, time spent versus lack of time spent.  The Japanese and American mothers do very similar things, for instance: song and dance classes for their young babies; day care situations, et cetera.

About ten minutes into it, I stopped thinking in this way and just started enjoying the process of watching these babies.  The director creatively pairs film shorts together and it makes a satisfying collage of love and care for the smallest members of our human clan. (Or, should I even say, it makes an interesting board book movie?  My 3 month-old "watched" parts of this film and was fascinated.) 

The US family is a "green" ecologically-minded family; the Japanese family lives in one of the busiest sectors of Tokyo; the Mongolian family is a relatively well-off herding family, and the Namibian family seems mostly to consists of mothers and children - the men are off herding and farming.  It's an eclectic group; you wouldn't expect to find much in common necessarily, except that these babies are loved and cared for with very obvious joy. 

Viewers who have always been curious about breastfeeding will see fantastic images of babies nursing, including the Namibian mother tandem nursing.  And, I was curious about how people who don't use diapers manage - very well, as it happens.  

This is also a funny film - as one might imagine with babies, there are plenty of moments that made me want to laugh.  One is when the American baby is eating a banana and very painstakingly picks off each bit of the peel before eating it.  Then she bites into the wrong end and finds herself chewing on that bad-tasting end bit of bananas, and spits that out.  Another is the moment when the Monogolian baby, swaddled and lying on a bed, all of a sudden finds himself surrounded by a rooster that is at least twice his size.  The rooster just dances around the bed.  Still another is when the Namibian baby has learned to walk and starts balancing something (the end of a plastic jug, I think?) on her head - I was highly impressed by her walking and balancing skills.

Ultimately, the theme of the movie seems to be one that contributes an argument to the Western "mommy wars" problem.  (So okay, I am going to find a point here - but not the one I was originally looking for...)  Here was an array of parents and cultures and parenting styles, and they all work.  The Namibian mother was the one who was most obviously with her baby all the time, in a very relaxed way - more relaxed than I think sometimes the pressure of being a "stay at home mom" feels in Western culture. But her husband and sons were often gone many days out of the month.  "Work out of the home" moms were represented by the Western mothers.  The Japanese mother worked out of the home and so we saw a day care scene but we also see her and her husband taking care of the baby at home.  The American parents tried to work as a team, and it seemed that they did more trading off of parental duties, around their office work, than the others. 

And a different way of running the family shows up in the the Mongolian family.  They, too, tried to pair up their parenting, probably by necessity.  Both the mother and father were doing work with the herding animals and so would intersperse child care with animal care.  That meant the baby was left alone fairly often - and we see him crawling around outside, enjoying the weather, and investigating the broad world while the parents are off at some distance.

Maybe the point was: you do what you have to do to make a living and care for the kids.  None of these represents an "ideal" for parenthood except for the common thread of desiring to care for the babies so that they are healthy, have some freedom to learn to crawl and walk and talk, and that there is something joyful about nurturing a baby. 

The movie is not really about the parents, though, but the babies themselves and that is ultimately what makes one become mesmerized: their extraordinary growth, their wonder, their joy.

One final funny moment, for me anyway: at one point, the American father takes his daughter to a song time, where they sing 'The Earth is our Mother." The chant threw me off at first because it starts before you see that we're in the US and I thought, "Huh, this must be in one of the non-American countries - maybe they do chant there."  And then I was laughing at myself because I saw the American father, AND I remembered singing this song probably when I was three years old myself.  I think of it as a very, very "hippy" song.  But what made it even funnier is that the baby stands up, walks out of the singing circle and tries to open the door.  "Let me out, please!"  Exactly what I'd be doing anyway, if I found myself having to sing that song again.  (Hey, I like being ecologically friendly but I'm not sure that's what this song is really about....)

Anyway, if you haven't had the chance to see Babies, I highly recommend finding a copy somewhere.  It will give you hope - a good thing to have these days.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The School, The Church, The Society as a Business....

Which would you rather work for:

1) a company where managers assess your skills by giving you a "benchmark" - a set number of items to sell, or cases to process, or things to build, or money to make;

2) a company where managers look at the total group of workers and develop a company plan based on its workers' strengths, allowing for those workers to voice concerns?

For me, it'd be the second.  That model seems much more to respect me as a person with dignity and worth.  The first has the advantage of being easier, but also seems more arbitrary, clearly less concerned about me than about reaching a certain kind of "output" for which the workers, rather than the managers (and certainly not the CEOs) can be blamed.

I was thinking about this because, as many of you know, Philosophy PhD Husband is going back to school to get a degree in accounting, and one of his (rather awesome, in my opinion) business school profs was discussing the differences between many contemporary CEOs in American corporations and the so-called Toyota Way - especially Principle 4, 'Level out the workload.  Work like the tortoise, not the hare".  I do not claim Toyota is perfect - last year's recall is an example of that.  And it remains to be seen how well the company will pull out of the earthquake and residual crises.   His professor, among many other business guys at his school, think very little these days of CEOs making hundreds of thousands of dollars (if not way, way more) while not according dignity to their workers.  (To say nothing of the fact that if workers' pay had risen the way CEOs' pay had, on average, workers ought to be paid $50 per hour. Ahem.)

And yet, at least as a starting point and on paper, Toyota seems to respect its workers' intelligence, and the general ethos is that a company is not there for itself alone, but that to help workers is to help the whole.  By contrast, many American corporations work from a top-down, micromanagement sensibility - one that kills peoples' thinking and doesn't respect their free will.

The prevailing tendency in nearly every place of work these days is to assume a "business model."  After all, say people I've worked with on church committees, businesses are known for efficiency and getting things done while still turning a profit.  Surely those are things that schools and churches can learn from? 

I admit to be adverse to considering the church or the school or the public library as fundamentally "businesses" because human society is not for the purpose of efficiency and turning profits - but as a thought experiment, I'm willing to run with this analogy for a bit and consider that if we are going to see places where we work as "businesses" perhaps there are better and worse ways of understanding "business"?

Guess which way also functions in many school districts, churches and other groups that are part of American communities?  We do not go "like the tortoise", but expect schools and churches to show improvement within three years.  If that doesn't work, fire the lot and put in a new philosophy designed to help the students, or change out the pastor, or get more marketing techniques in to reach the seekers.  It's too fast - it doesn't respect that human life requires a bit of time to process, to fine tune, to think and reflect and, dare I say it, learn from our mistakes. 

Let me take the time to focus a bit more closely on schools, though I think I could write similarly about churches here. A friend of mine was a librarian in a school that was closed and completely "restarted" because of its lack of performance over three years.  Since she was fired along with all the others, she had to find another job in the school district, but all the librarian jobs were taken, as were all the jobs where she felt she had experience and qualifications.  So she took a job as a third grade teacher.  That meant she was the "new kid" at the school; the other third grade classroom teacher knew all the students (and in fact had taught most of them the year before as second graders in her dual 2nd/3rd grade), and so made a claim on all the kids who did not have ADHD or learning disabilities, who were not from impoverished families where a kid might not have breakfast in the morning, who were generally high performing test takers.  At the end of the year, both classrooms were assessed the same way, and my friend was deemed to be the "worse" teacher though she had all sorts of knocks against her to begin with.  She felt she was lucky to have helped the kids improve their reading and  math skills in any way at all, since she spent most of her time doing behavior reviews and separating kids who were being dangers to the other students.

My friend's case is not an isolated case.  The school district lacks the ability to think creatively about where to place an experienced librarian.  The school district itself is at the mercy of politicians, who want the US to be "like" other countries in terms of success at math and science and who simultaneously see teachers as the enemy because of their unions and their high cost wages.  The problem is, politicians aren't in the thick of things and can't really *know* how to fix the mistakes teachers themselves see.  School administrators, who are closer to the ground than the folks in the capitol, can often barely see the individual problems because they're looking at a different set of problems. 

That's why I like the Catholic social teaching principle of subsidiarity - the idea that accords respect to every one by recognizing that everybody's got some gifts others don't. When it comes to society, each level of society can deal with certain problems that other levels of society do not need to be part of.  The local soccer team should not be a matter for the President of the United States to deal with.  I think when it comes to the question of unions, and states, and schools, subsidiarty has been run over roughshod.

The proverb suggests you can't win the race by being a hare.  We've been trying to be hares - we've been trying to fix "problems" that did not develop overnight, by too quickly aiming for the institution and trying to fix it, top down. But study after study suggests that all sorts of things might be causing problems for our children today that have little to do with good or bad teachers: diet, video games, lack of parental involvement, parents' divorce at an early age, entitlement, helicopter parents, societal values that do not value children or that value them too much, et cetera. 

If I were going for a business model, I'd rather aim for one that had a "hare" approach.  A model that focuses on workers' dignity and ability to contribute in relation to their specific skills (even if those skills are put to creative uses) is better for society than one that ignores the unique capabilities of people in favor of "outputs" and assessment, regardless of the person.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Form and Content DO Matter

I loved this piece by Alison Miller on "fresh expressions" of church. (Thanks to Debra Dean Murphy for the link, by the way.)  Those of you who are familiar with ecclesiology will recognize "fresh expressions" to be, well, not so fresh -rather reeking of an old, old paradigm of "church growth movement" combined with "marketing tactics".  Well obviously - isn't the church a business?  (I snorted out loud in class in a very unbecoming way the day a student of mine insisted that the church was the oldest business there is. Ahem.  There was no convincing him otherwise, even though his hypothesis is achronistic, at best, and certainly a-theological.)

But what I especially love about the Miller piece is its suggestions further down the post: "Using Wittgenstein, we argue that form and content of faith are not so easily separated. In seeking this separation, the language and identity that forms us communally is quite lost because the meaning lies in the practices and not beneath them."

Yes!  I love it when things I tell students in class actually have theological (and philosophical) import as well.  I also love it when I can annoy Philosophy PhD Husband - he happens not to love Wittgenstein as much as I do ;-).  I hadn't made this particular connection till reading this essay, but readers of my blog will know that I do emphasize both form and content in my classes.  Form matters because it relates to content. Like Marshall McLuhan famously wrote: "The medium is the message." 

I know this about my writing: I use far too many commas and in the wrong places.  When I was working as a writing tutor, my supervisor was forever telling me "NO COMMA!" but I could never see what the difficulty was.  I use commas like I speak - where I would put a pause in my speaking, so I do in my writing.  I recognize that can make my writing difficult to read and probably also makes any presumed content seem hesitant, like I'm afraid to make an argument.  Secret revealed: I do fear staking my claim sometimes.  It's something I'm always seeking to overcome.  I think conversely that means my arguments come across more strongly than I'd want (and with less nuance) precisely because I'm working so hard against that fear of having nothing - gulp - to say.

Lex orandi, lex credendi, proclaims Miller.  The law of prayer is the law of belief.  Form and content both matter.  Or rather, isn't this the theological equivalent of the chicken and egg argument?  Which came first - the prayers we pray or the beliefs we proclaim in the creed?  As we might expect, liturgical theologians often say that it is liturgy and prayer that come first, and so they emphasize this theologia prima.  Others, canon lawyers in my acquaintance especially, emphasize belief as coming first.  How can one pray if one doesn't know how to pray rightly?   Geoffrey Wainwright does notable work in providing substantial doctrinal discussion in relation to liturgy and so avoids this impasse.

My students prefer to jump over the impasse rather than work through it.  They will sometimes say, "But I don't believe everything in that prayer" and therefore they won't pray it.  Just as in Miller's article, "The "Fresh Expressions" movement sees Christianity quite abstractly as a set of ideas, which can be separated from their embodiment and then inserted into a new culture."  Somehow on their view, the doctrines are just old-fashioned things that don't really relate to their lives, and the prayers are therefore useless because they contain the old-fashioned doctrines.  (And on this, see this article on Facebook killing Churches in relation to doctrine...)

I get that, I do.  I used to think that evolution and creation conflicted and so I couldn't "believe in" creation, or in any hymns, prayers or homilies that related to creation.  I think it is God's funny joke that I now spend good portions of every.single.class I teach discussion Genesis 1 and 2.  Somehow it's always important, whether the class is medical ethics, or Augustine, or sexual ethics, or contemporary theology.

But I also have seen how important habits of the church are.  Kneeling DOES make my three year old respond differently to her world, see it in a different way, act in different ways.  And truth be told, the more often I kneel, the more I do too. (I'd like to think I'm becoming more peaceful and humble, but since I'm telling you this, that is probably not yet quite the case ;-))  This is not simply a question of doing something by rote - in the beginning each individual action seems a bit like a chore, like a constriction.  But the longer one does a practice, the more it becomes part of who you are and the more you begin to see how to use those actions rightly.  The narrow door does become quite wide; the "freshest" expressions are also the ones that have that kind of depth perspective in them.

I am reminded of the day a friend came to tell me that his mother had died.  At such intense moments, when we don't have the luxury of supposing a separation between doctrine and practice, or form and content, the importance of our practices are all that make sense.  I heard the news, and immediately he and I knelt as we had often done, and prayed together.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Balance, Schmalance and Why the Ivory Tower is not really a Tower...

Someone recently forwarded me an article from the New York Times about women professors at MIT:see  Gains, Drawbacks for Women Professors. And almost immediately I started noticing that everyone and their sister was sharing it on Facebook and on their blogs, so of course now I want to comment too. 

Some have suggested that this story uncovers a broad, general problem in academia as a whole: that women professors everywhere are feeling this kind of bias. Indeed, the article suggests that MIT is a "national model for addressing gender inequity" on campuses.

I have to say, calling MIT a model in this area is rather a stretch.  MIT's questions about women's participation have come after other institutions have looked at and attempted to fix structural issues.   Note, for example, Duke University's Women's Initiative. There, women faculty noted (in 2003, four years after MIT's initial report uncovering disparities among faculty salaries, office space and percentage of faculty, and only a year after MIT completed its initial study of women at its engineering school) that women's salaries had parity with men's salaries, relative to research, experience in the field, and rank.   On that point, Duke and other schools (including both the institutions for which I have worked) did better than MIT at the point when MIT was just beginning to uncover the difficulties mentioned in the article.

More troubling in the Duke report, is that women continue to have lower numbers of people at rank (associate and full professor).  This is, indeed a nationwide trend that was found at MIT as well.  My own university sees those same kinds of numbers (though it has relatively more women at associate professor level than Duke appears to have had in that report).  The presumption is that reaching full professor necessarily has fewer women because the people who could make full professor now came to the university at a time when the ratios between men and women were much more disparate. The big question for schools now will be how to give women the resources they need to receive tenure and promotion.  Office space, lab space, time for writing, are all at issue and MIT is correct to focus on that. 

So it would seem that there are a couple of factors to consider in all this.  One is the institutional culture of the school and the ways specific schools have to respond to the unique difficulties women at those institutions experience.  It does not really surprise me that MIT should have found such radical disparities between male and female faculty in the late 90s, after many other schools had already noted such things and worked to correct them.  MIT's focus on scientific and technological fields, fields that have difficulty retaining women even in private sector jobs, would make the gender question an issue along different lines than it would be at other institutions. 

Consider for example, the unique gender questions I had when I went to teach at an all-male school: teaching all male students was sometimes a real difficulty, and posed concerns that MIT faculty would not likely have encountered in 1999 when they did their survey.  On the other hand, my colleagues were terrific and close knit, partly because the school was in a small town.  This was also a school that had/has one of the best maternity leave policies in the country, something that spurs envy among friends at other institutions.  The maternity leave policy did not magically appear, of course; it took a lot of hard work by a lot of good people (men and women both) but it was created by, and itself created, an overall distinctive atmosphere from the one evidenced at MIT.

But the second consideration is cultural awareness of women as a whole, and this is what MIT faculty commentators get exactly right:  “The more fundamental issues are societal,” Professor Kastner said, “and M.I.T. can’t solve them on its own.”  The so-called Ivory Tower is, in fact, affected by so-called "real life."

I don't know if it is more fundamental, but the whole question of balance is one that women ask, academic or not.   For example, it does seem ubiquitous that a woman is always asked about work/life balance, as the MIT professors discuss in the article.  Consider my own blog: what is it supposedly about, but a balance between work and motherhood?  Have I implicitly complied with patriarchal structures by even considering the question?  Another group of women say that this is just the problem that working mothers have: they are, de facto, the ones who have to think about child care and home economics alongside work and are therefore the ones who need to find that mythical balance.

But as I have said in other posts, I do think that "balance" is a myth: having to negotiate parenthood and work is part of life itself and places of work need to recognize this.  Work does not exist for its own sake; it is part of community building as a whole.  I do not think it is the case that women have to do this more than men, I just think men are the ones who have had to be more silent about it and who also think about that balance in different ways.  Real life is work and family combined; how we go about doing that in good ways is something that we all (including our places of work) need to consider.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Sick of Pendulum Swings...

If I had a grandfather clock, I probably would have taken the pendulum out for the time being so I wouldn't have to think about pendulums.  I'm just tired of hearing about "pendulum swings" in the news:
The Washington Post
The Economist
The Wall Street Journal 
The New York Times
Oregon Public Broadcasting
The National (Australia)

And books:
Turkey: The Pendulum Swings Back
Pendulum Swing
The Pendulum Swings: Transforming School Reform
Resisting the Pendulum Swing

And even academic journal articles:
Intrauterine Contraception: The Pendulum Swings Back
Less Sedation in Intensive Care: The Pendulum Swings Back
The Enablement Pendulum Swings Back
Psychology Today

It's strange to me that this analogy about ourselves has so taken hold of our imaginations, especially in an era where very few people use grandfather clocks to tell time, or otherwise have operating pendulums in their lives.  We tell time by our digital media: flat, sleek, cool instruments that do not depict time as motion. 

But the pendulum swing is mostly motion and has, in the past, been somewhat nice as an analogy precisely because of its motion: it suggests that people change their minds.  Pendulum swings were once seen as slow social change, however.  My natural history museum in Denver where I grew up had a very large pendulum that also moved quite slowly - but it could tell time.  Society is something even bigger than that and of course we would lumber along and slowly change when it comes to things like racism or the industrial revolution.

Given how often "pendulum swing" is popping up in blogs and news and everywhere these days, it would seem that we are a nation of very, very frequent mind changers.  Perhaps we think that this frequent mind changing business goes hand in hand with the ever-faster technology that we now have.  "Things just move so fast these days," people say.

But I'm not convinced that we change our minds quite that frequently.

Instead, I'm reflecting on the time pieces we do actually use as analogy: the cool, sleek, motionless ones.  Time, for us, is nothing but a packaged byte, a blip on the screen as we pause momentarily in playing i-pod games or halt briefly in mid-conversation on our cell phones.

Vince Miller spoke at the Catholic Theological Society of America talking about the ways in which internet groups allowed people to maintain enclaves with other people who think exactly like they do.  Catholics now see each other in terms of liberal and conservative, rather than just "Catholic" in part because groups band together around pet issues and the Catholic voices that had the most influence in the last election happen to also be ones that had significant internet presence.

  Carl Elliot writes about apotemnophiliacs, people who believe their lives will be better if they have an amputation of an arm or a leg; the internet has allowed them to cluster together.  In the absence of the internet, no apotemnophiliac would have been given credence in their communities, in part because they represent an extremely small portion of the population.  In the internet age, however, they have a voice, and now a means by which they can persuade surgeons that amputation is really no different from plastic surgery in terms of peoples' rights to be who they want to be.

In other words, in many ways the internet exposes us to more people like ourselves rather than less. And, we have the freedom to congregate at websites that represent more of our own thinking rather than less.  You will see gadflys at various sites, people arguing about hot button topics, with the conversation in the comments sections always ENDING LIKE THIS, WITH PEOPLE YELLING AT EACH OTHER TRYING TO GET EACH OTHER'S ATTENTION EVEN THOUGH THEY KNOW THEY WON'T CHANGE THEIR MINDS.

But no real evidence of a pendulum swing - no people who change their minds en masse.

Just people who believe that there are either more people like them or less people like them, depending on the emphasis of that day's news shows, which in turn leads people to be either apathetic or to join in the noisy throngs that profess what they profess.

Am I being too cynical (or too stupid) about this? Likely.  Let me just wait till the intelligence pendulum swings back, here...

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Baby Days of Spring Semester

My grandmother talks about "the dog days of summer" - those days where it's so hot nothing seems to get done.

Well, I'm having the "baby days of spring semester."  Baby G. is getting more active by the minute, and I even think she's at the beginning of doing some teething (!), so that it's more difficult to get writing done.  I do still have that book manuscript due: I think I'll have to start moonlighting to get drafts done.  Typing one-handed was hard enough, but typing with a squirmy baby is much tougher.  My maternity leave also ended on Tuesday, so I'm back at work doing administrative tasks.  Most of these are being done at home, though I do get into the office for a brief meeting here and there (and bring the baby, of course).  Hard to do that during these "baby days" as well.

It isn't just that Baby G. is more active that makes things harder to do, of course.  The day care center called last week and said, "We have a spot for your baby in May."  "I'd rather wait till August."  "In August, she'd be too old to enter with the incoming baby class and therefore you wouldn't have a spot till she's two."

Hmmm.  For those of you fortunate enough not to deal with day care, let me translate. The day care center tries to keep a balance of younger and older babies.  They have twelve spots in the younger baby room (6 weeks to 12 months) and twelve spots in the older baby room (12 months to 24 months).  The babies rotate in groups at the appropriate time (they move in May, August and January) so that there's always an incoming class of younger babies, and always a like-numbered group moving up to the older baby room.  Since the total number of spots available for babies stays the same, the only way to get a spot if you don't rotate in early is for someone else to drop out.  Guess how often THAT mythical experience happens? So that's why in May, Baby G. is good to go at five months, but in August at eight months would be unable to go.****

I didn't know all this initially and so was quite taken aback.  I want to stay home with Baby G. till August, and I can do so because I'm on contract till May 15th (I'm presuming I'll be offered another contract that starts again in August ;-)): she'll be more independent of me then because she'll likely have started solids and by that time, I'll be screaming ready to get out of the house and teach some college students.  That's how it was with L. anyway.  I stayed home with her for nine months and was glad to spend the time but equally glad to get back to work.

I thought briefly about other options - I know of a couple other day care places that could probably take Baby G in August.   But the upsides of this day care are that it is on my work campus, L's preschool is there, and it's a close walk or drive from my house.  All good.  Other day cares are 20 minutes' drive one way in the opposite direction.  I had that experience the first year I went back to work - the 1.5 hour commute to get L to day care was not conducive to much family life at all.  You can probably imagine yourselves how much better our lives have been as a family once we could cut that drive out of the equation.

I feel somehow like I'm robbing Baby G. of some time if I send her to day care in May - she'll still be nursing pretty much full time even if she's on solids.  And I'm not sure I'll quite be ready to let her go.

 I know, it's the conundrum every mom faces anyway, and I'm very fortunate not to have to face it as soon as most moms in the US.  The likely thing we'll do is pay for May but hold off on actually putting her in day care till late June.

Still, the fact that time is swiftly running away from us makes me want to hold on to these baby days all the more.

****This is roughly the way I understand it. The director told me about all the quid pro quos too, which seemed to amount to: "SOME older babies will get in in August, but not yours."   So the upshot is, it's all way complicated, involving waiting lists and other sundry info and it doesn't really work the neat way I described above.  Ah well. This is why I am not a director of a day care center (God bless her) and I'm quite sure I'd have a hard time dealing with parents exactly like me ;-)

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A Baby's Forehead Ashes...

Baby G. received ashes at today's Ash Wednesday service.  I didn't request it; the person imposing them just started right in with her, after giving me my black cross: "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel!" he proclaimed

The thing of it was that as soon as he started imposing the ashes, Baby G. gave him a humongous, beatific smile even while he was saying "turn away from sin."  The smile was so contagious, HE smiled.  And I returned to my own seat repressing giggles.  She was laughing at him, at the very idea of "turn away from sin"

I am certainly not the first person to be confronted with the apparent contradiction of 'original' sin and a baby who has not really had time to sin in the way we theologians refer to sin (as something we intend to do, as something we understand as wrong, et cetera).  How can a baby sin?  And, after all, what does baptizing an infant mean if our theology of baptism is that it saves us from sins?

And yet, there is the stark Ash Wednesday phrase: "remember you are dust and to dust you shall return."

It reminds me as I hold my three-month-old that unfortunately for her, she has been born to human parents.  And unfortunately, the way of human life is that we are caught up in worlds that we have half been formed by and half made ourselves.  In a world where there are protests, and people who have no jobs, and where slavery still exists, and the longest US war rages on, and taxes are due, and sick people can't get the care they need, and the globe seems certain to go to hell in a handbasket (at least if what counts for hell is rising waters and raging droughts) - if all that and more, it surely makes sense too that all too often I am short on patience, long on holding grudges, suspicious of trusting in God or anyone else for that matter (especially for how the proverbial "they" might be spending "my" money), and angry at very small provocations.  Every day we rise and spend the waking time trying to prevent bad things from happening to us, or at least do damage control.  We can control these things; we can make our lives better, we think - if only we vote for the right person or send money to the right cause or try to get more people to agree with my views on parenting, what kind of house to buy and how best to spend one's money, to say nothing of my views on war, money, health care, abortion, homosexuality and stem cell research.

And I am helpless dust - too helpless to prevent her from becoming a human who imbibes too much of her mother's sensibilities.  "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return" becomes my most deeply felt prayer today for it reminds me that whatever sense of control we think we have over anything is, at best, a fleeting dream.

Of course she smiled.  I have no more control over her churchly behavior than I do over my three year old's. ("Shhh." "We DON'T take our socks and shoes off in church."  "Don't bang on the back of the pew, sweetie, that man's trying to pray." "Oh, honey, you can't draw all over the offering envelopes.  That wastes paper."  "Keep your hands to yourself." "SHHHH."  "SHHHHHHHHHHHHH.")

In remembering that I am dust, that Baby G. is dust, that the priest is dust, that even the President of the United States and Congress and the College of Cardinals and the Pope are all dust, I think of other reasons why we are baptized and why we baptize babies who cannot, after all, give reasoned consent to what we parents and godparents are doing on their behalf.

In this sea of an uncontrollable world that we think and believe with all our might that we can control, baptism expresses a Christian's hope in an "otherwise."   Baptism is something outside our control and is therefore the antidote to what ails us.  We cannot confer the grace received and in any case, what human would have come up with the idea that water and some words would be salvific?.  The scales fall from our eyes; we see ourselves and others for what we are, nothing but dust. 

But dust that has a hope of being redeemed. We come to see in that liturgical act that original sin does exist: this world we grow into and think we can control becomes an "otherwise" in baptism.  It becomes a recognition that the truest, most beautiful, most godlike things, like a baby's smile, cannot be coerced or bought or sold.  Like a plant, these godly things can only be planted, watered, and encouraged to root and bloom.

What is baptism but a hope that roots will form in that dust and that something beautiful, something that is God's, will witness to the world what it means to be saved.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Academic Job Search VI - Rejections :-(

For other posts in this series:
Beginning a search  Networking    First Interview      On Campus Interview     Contract

I realized after I supposedly finished my series on the job search that there was still one more piece to consider: rejections.  There are a ton of them on the academic job search.  Philosophy PhD Husband annoyingly joked that I couldn't say much about rejections since I have a job.  I reminded him I had my fair share of rejections on the job market, to say nothing of all the other ways academics get rejected - publications, grant apps, fellowships, ultra-cool university committees (wait, are faculty ON any ultra-cool university committees???)

But obviously the subject is a sore one and a tough one to think about.  Philosophy PhD Husband is someone whose intelligence I respect a great deal, who has published in top philosophy journals, who has developed his teaching a lot over the years and who yet has never landed full time tenure track job.  Sigh.  It is the dark side of academia.  So here, sadly, are some thoughts on rejections.

Generally, academic culture pushes the view that the further out you are on the job market, the worse you must be as a candidate.  This is a kind of yard sale mentality - that if you arrive early, at 7 am, all the good stuff is there, but don't bother going at 3pm because the steals will be gone.  That kind of mentality is quite illogical.  Academics know, first of all, that there are more PhDs granted than there are jobs in most fields and unless we want to cast our own degrees in doubt,  we should not presume that unqualified people are somehow getting degrees and thereby deserve to be passed over again and again if they didn't get a job in the first go-round. Second, the yard sale mentality presumes that everyone is going to want the same things and so everyone's fighting for the same stuff available at 7 am.  But as a collector of fine china (not something that goes quickly off the shelves these days), arriving at 3 pm is perfectly fine.  Sure, if I want the Wii that is going, I'd better be in line before 7am.  But are we in academic only about the latest new thing?  I hope not.

Corollary to above - the ABD/PhD Problem: There's a weird kind of gap in academia - being ABD makes it difficult to get a job because schools want to know that you'll have your dissertation done and will, in fact, have a PhD.  So having the PhD is better because you clearly have done the work.  Except that then it starts you down the "yard sale" path mentioned above.  So being ABD is better.  Except that....

Generally, academic culture does not promote even the tiniest courtesy of sending notification letters to people that they are no longer being considered for the job.   Of all the job applications I've ever sent, I have only received one - that's ONE - letter informing me I was no longer being considered.  Now, part of this is, I am to understand, a legal thing: that until the search is closed, such letters cannot be sent.  What is interesting though is that the legal aspect translate into never ever sending such a letter.  I think we all collectively could do better here. 

So, if you are on the job market and do not hear from the school, do not consider that it is about you.  Quite the contrary.  The question of when to consider that the job opportunity has been lost is a tough one.  Some schools dawdle a bit about applications and won't contact applicants until even three or four months past the deadline.  Those schools tend to eschew the first round interviews and head right to the on campus interviews.  Other schools make determinations within days of the closing of the applications.

Things to Do After a Rejection:

Call the School or Not?  I'm up in the air on this one, truly.   I have heard of people calling and asking for advice on what they could have done better or differently.  I'm not sure they got satisfactory replies.  This is partly because, remember, the person on the hiring committee is a full time faculty member who has teaching and research responsibilities and who, having just finished conducting a search which has made his/her days at least 12-13 hours long, is now relieved to have found a candidate who signed on the dotted line and wants to return to some normalcy.

If you were never in the interview stage at all, I'd say probably don't call and instead, get to the career center and make sure your cover letter and CV are up to snuff.  But if you were in the interview stage, you could probably call.  Thoughts about this from others?

Indulge in a *little* self reflection, but then press on -  One of the best pieces of advice I ever had about submitting articles to journals is to make several copies of the essay and put them in envelopes addressed to several journals.  Send one; if it comes back as a rejection, immediately send out the next envelope and so on.  Don't even bother looking at the suggested comments for improvement because should the next journal accept it for publication, the suggestions for revision will invariably be different. This is with the caveat that the so-called mechanical aspects of writing - the grammar, the "flow" etc are in place.

I think this is good advice for the job search, too.  Remember that so much of the job search is NOT about you.  The things one school will determine not to make you a "fit" for them will be exactly what another school believes it needs.  But it is worthwhile to double check and practice the "mechanics" of the job search - have your CV and letters double checked and to do some practice interviewing, for example.

 Another thing that is well worth reflecting on is whether to get into the "whole academic gig" in the first place.  Are you trying for an academic job because everyone else in your program is, too?  Are you not sure you want to be dealing with teaching intro college courses forever, or constantly worrying about publishing, et cetera?  It's worth thinking about.

Don't Despair - It CAN happen, even years out from graduation.

Further Possibilities for Those Who Want Tenure Track Jobs But Don't Yet Have Them:
  • Adjunct work - this has the advantage of keeping you in the teaching loop, but is distinctly disadvantageous because it is hard to have enough adjuncting work to make ends meet, you often end up having 7-10 "jobs" in a semester, and it doesn't pay benefits. Grrrr.  Talk about collective bargaining - I think adjuncts of the world ought to unite.
  •  Online work - these days, adjuncting work can be done online, which can make life a bit simpler, at least in that you're not putting mileage on the car.  I enjoy teaching online classes myself, but many others don't.  It's worth a look, though...
  • Publishing/editing - a great option, especially since you've undoubtedly honed editing skills while working toward that PhD.  It takes you a bit further afield but it is sometimes possible to get back into academia from publishing.
  • Stay on as a graduate student for a bit longer...but see above corollary for the nifty little conundrum this brings.
Possibilities that Sometimes Merely Masquerade as Possibilities:
  • Library Science degree
  • Law degree 
 Everyone and their brother will suggest that you MAKE USE of your PhD by getting a degree in Library Science or going to law school.  I'm definitely not opposed to the idea of going back to school to get an MLS or a JD.  On the other hand, the whole "make use of your PhD" mentality is a red flag for me, not only because I believe that education and and developing thoughtfulness is good for humanity as a whole, quite apart from jobs, but ALSO because if you've gotten to the point where you think you want to go back to school anyway - why limit yourself to an MLS or a JD just because it helps you USE your Phd???

Friday, March 4, 2011

Academic Job Search V - The Contract

For other posts in this series:
Beginning a search  Networking    First Interview      On Campus Interview     Rejections

The contract stage - easily the most confusing stage of the job search.  Lots of people make the  mistake of being so overjoyed about having a job that they don't negotiate the contract.  Sometimes that's justified, other times not.  As I mentioned in Part IV, you want to make the job livable for you and the school has an interest in doing so as well, because they don't want to be back doing the same darned job search in a year or two or three.

So - things to consider requesting when you negotiate:

1. Salary - there is not generally a lot of leeway with the salary they quote you if you are a person entering the field for the first time.  That said, if you have have another job offer, you can do some negotiating - keep in mind disparities between cost of living in the two schools' areas before pushing for too much, though.  Also, if you've published a significant piece or two, or won an award for teaching or something else that gives you a bit of an edge, go ahead and ask for a bit of a salary bump. (By a "bit" I mean $1000-$3000 higher...)  They can always say no, but sometimes they'll give you something - less than you asked for, more than you were originally quoted.

Do double check the AAUP rankings (http://chronicle.com/stats/aaup/) if you didn't do this before the campus interview.  AAUP lists each institution and salary ranges by rank (and make SURE you're looking at the correct rank...); the lower end of the range is generally for first and second year assistant profs in humanities; the higher end is for econ and computer science (or law and business, if at a university) with 5-6 years' experience. Make sure that the salary they quote is at the least on the lower end of the range for that specific institution.  You can also double check institutions surrounding your potential institution.  If there are disparities between your quote and your institution's range, definitely ask for a pay bump by citing AAUP.  If there are disparities between your institution and surrounding institutions, you might be able to argue for a small addition in pay.

FYI: Many schools pay less for people who will come in with no finished degree.

2. Time - If you are ABD and anticipate still being ABD when you arrive, you can ask for a reduced course load or a delayed start to your teaching. (Say, spring semester rather than fall....)  This can give you needed time to finish the dissertation (which, again, the school has a great deal of interest in you doing).

You can also consider negotiating a reduced course load during the first semester to get acclimated.  I have known some people successfully ask for this.

Considering School C from my "Academic Job Search IV" post, I would definitely ask for "time" in my contract, especially since they expect a person to be heading up an institute.  I'd probably ask for a course release for the entire year, and perhaps stipulate that I have only two new preps (academic slang for course preparation) per semester, so that at least one of the courses is a repeat.

I might request "time" from School B as well, depending on whether they were able to provide a good salary or not (which, remember, would be one of my big concerns following the on campus interview).

3. Time further out - You may want to negotiate an earlier sabbatical depending on tenure requirements at the school.  Some schools automatically give third year sabbaticals; others may be research heavy but not give a sabbatical automatically.  Knowing tenure requirements will help you decide this. 

4. Maternity/paternity leave - You may also want to negotiate specific terms of a maternity leave or paternity leave even if not currently expecting and if your institution appears to have no stated policy.  Here it is helpful to know the laws of the state where you will reside: New Jersey has a paternity leave policy on the books.  Other states don't.

When it comes to maternity leave, I recommend at the very least negotiating that the semester in which you are due, you have no teaching responsibilities.  If your due date is post-Thanksgiving, I recommend negotiating for having the Spring semester off from teaching.  You should brush up on FMLA and also at least get the six paid weeks of full maternity leave (no research or service responsibilities either) but you might want to negotiate that for beyond six weeks too.

5.  Spousal hire - Many more academics arrive with spouses who are also academics than in the past and universities have become more open to possibilities regarding spousal hires.  You can request that the school help you find a job for your spouse.

6. Research equipment, books or money - This is specific to your research needs but often it is vital to have some extra funding to be able to do your research - consider a range of things you might need, including software, book allowance, specific scientific equipment, and the like.

7. Space - Particularly if you have special research needs, you may want to negotiate office space.  As a junior faculty member, you will not generally have your pick of office space (which is usually at a premium anyway) but if you're the only researcher doing X and X needs a certain kind of space, you've got good grounds for requesting it.

Consider the needs of the school too - do not try to negotiate more than 2-3 of these, so consider what you need to make this a good job for you.  Also consider, you will probably not get everything you want - ask for a bit more than you need with the aim always being to give yourself, and the school, the job you need so that you can commit to the institution for the foreseeable future.

Finally, those who have documented disabilities, do not be afraid to ask for the accomodations that you need for your work.  These are not negotiable, but are important things to bring up at this stage.

Any other tips out there that I've forgotten?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Academic Job Search IV - Making it On Campus

For other posts in this series:
Beginning a search  Networking    First Interview           Contract       Rejections

A call for an on campus interview requires a bit of a mental shift in thinking.  It is now about a 1 in 3 chance that this could be your future employer, so for the on campus interview consider that you're checking THEM out just as much as they're continuing to check you out.  I understand that you will feel like you've got to take the job if offered because it's THE option you have but you at least need to make sure that it's a place you can make work somehow, even if it's not quite the location/job type (more teaching over research or vice versa) you're looking for.

Actually, location and job type are much easier to deal with than some other things you might encounter....

Consider the Following Examples:

School A) School A invites you for a 2 day job interview and promises to reimburse travel.  The chairperson of the hiring committee also tells you you'll be receiving a packet of helpful information in the mail.  Your on campus interview consists of a teaching presentation before an actual class and a research presentation, and the chairperson asks you to prepare your teaching presentation based on the readings the students are doing.  The research presentation will be done before a variety of faculty members and is to be on your current research.

When you arrive at school A, you are immediately greeted by the chairperson and given the full schedule.  There is someone available to walk you to and from each place you must visit, and your schedule includes meetings with the president, the dean, and a representative from human resources.  You will also meet with students at a variety of times.  On all of the nights you will be there, the department is providing meals.  One dinner is with junior faculty, and one of the lunches is with a group of women faculty so that you can ask questions particular to these groups of people. In some cases, you may even be given "housing" or "town" tours so you can get a sense of the kind of living options in the area.

This is the ideal on-campus interview (And I am happy to say, really is the norm.  The vast majority of on campus interviews I've had were like this....).  This is a school that knows you're checking them out as much as they're checking you out, and they're giving you every opportunity to find out as much as you can about them.  One of the big reasons is that they don't want to have to do another job search for your position any time soon.

So in preparation for all of this, you need to be sure you have questions set up for each available constituency you'll meet. (You will, also, always be fielding the same questions you had at your first round interview about teaching, research and how you see yourself fitting into institutional aims):

President/Provost:  Where do you see the institution in five years?  How does the department of ________ fit in to this institution's aims?  What are some of the goals you have in mind for the humanities/social sciences/sciences division of the school? (For the dean specifically: What are the tenure procedures?)

Chairperson of the Department (May or may not be the same as the chairperson of the hiring committee): What will I be expected to teach and how often?  (Very Very Important)... Will I be able to teach a course occasionally that relates to my research?  What are some of the department's goals?  What are the procedures for getting tenure?Are there opportunities for faculty to meet and share research?  How often are there department meetings?  Are there opportunities for interdepartmental collaboration? Is this a new tenure line or am I replacing someone? 

Senior Faculty:  What are the students like?  What kind of direction do you see/do you want to see the department take?  What do you like about working at this institution?

Junior Faculty (who will have been at the school 6 years or less) :  How have you liked working here?  What are the students like?  What are the housing options here?  What kinds of activities do people do here?  (If in  a small town, you might ask if people live in the nearest large city and commute, or if they travel there quite a bit....)  Do you have any advice for settling in?

Undergraduate students: What do you like about the department? What led you to come to this school?  What do you like studying?

Human Resources: (NB: Before going to your on campus interview, check out the average salary of your institution for your department and rank at the helpful AAUP website...)  What is the process for requesting a leave here? (Note the singular, non-specific leave: this covers all kinds of leaves, including family leave, short term and long term disability leave, as well as personal leave and sabbatical leave)   How often are sabbatical leaves offered?  What other benefits I can expect?  NB: You probably won't need to ask any of these questions of the HR person (because they're usually a bubbly, outgoing, cram-every-piece-of-possible-paper-in-your-hand kind of person) unless you have no meeting with a human resources person.  In that case, ask these questions of the chairperson of your department.

School B)  School B  invites you for a job interview in a far away city sot that you must take a plane to get there.  They promise to reimburse plane far but "could you possibly pick up the shuttle to the airport?"  You do so and arrive at the hotel with no one to greet you and an entire evening and morning to while away (because the interview doesn't start till noon....)  The interview itself is short: it consists of three hours with a hiring committee and a couple hours meeting with students.  You do not meet with the president, provost, or human resources person and when you ask standard questions like "What is the average salary?" they reply (rather abruptly) that you can't get that information until you've been offered a position. 

What do we know about this school from reading between the lines?
1. It may have some financial difficulties, evidenced by the fact that they've not really been hosting you beyond the barest requirements and this is really quite a short on campus interview for a tenure track line.   (If it were a temporary or adjuncting position, this is more standard.)  You should therefore wonder if there will be leaves available at all, or whether you'll have to ration copies or other office supplies.  You should also wonder if you'll be overworked: will your contract require more of you than salary or time allow?  Will you be viewed as mostly a working person with no outside life?

2. This kind of interview should make you wonder what faculty collaboration is really like.   Is your department kind of a pariah at this school?  The lack of access to human resource personnel or to faculty in other departments should make you wonder, in a negative way.

3.  They're not thinking about you and your needs.  They're not giving you enough information to make an informed decision about the school.  Will you therefore be seen as a number, as insignificant?  Too hard to tell.

If School B ends up being your only offer, you will want to consider carefully how to negotiate your contract to make this as liveable a situation as possible for you in the long term.  This is the kind of school you may be plotting to get as far away from as soon as possible, but if that proves difficult, the initial contract negotiations will be imperative.

School C)  School C invites you for a fully paid on campus interview much like School A's.  One of the key differences that is immediately apparent, though, is that School C asks for an on campus interview in an email - to ALL the other candidates as well.

When you arrive on campus, you are met by wonderful people - who immediately apologize for the town, the school and the people. In the course of the interview questions you ask, you discover that WHILE having a 4-4 course load, the school also expects the person in this new position to do plenty of research ("to lead us toward R1 status) and to run a new "institute" on campus that is newly funded by an anonymous donor.

What do we know about this school?
1)  It is characterized by unprofessionalism.  This is not necessarily a deal breaker, but you might wonder whether the way things get done at this school is by round about means, via old boy networks. 

2) There is a lack of good administration at this school. The administration is clueless about faculty needs and abilities.  They are expecting quite a lot out of their candidate, and especially one that they know comes straight from graduate school.  This is going to be information that comes in especially handily when it comes to negotiating a contract.

3) We might also wonder about financial difficulties, instead of or in addition to administrative problems.  While this institution is not clearly in dire straits, the fact that they're already piling on duties (4-4 course load along with running an institute) suggests that they do not have the ability to hire the personnel they need.  You'll probably be overworked at this school.

To Sum it Up....

The questions asked of you are similar to the ones from the first round, though you will have time to deepen your answers.  Where your real work is, however, is in the questions you ask and the things you intuit.  This will help you immeasurably in determining what to do when it comes time for contract negotiations should they offer you a job.

Special for Women and Moms:

1. I have gotten mixed advice over the years on whether to ask directly about maternity leave, or whether to just be vague: "What is your leave policy?"  These days, I would probably ask directly, but depending on the situation, might ask it more of women faculty themselves.  Alternatively, do an internet search to see if you can find a copy of the maternity leave policy and if you can't find one, be prepared to ask for that in contract negotiations.

2. If the hiring committee doesn't arrange a meeting with faculty women for you, you might request a coffee with someone if there's down time at all.  (There usually isn't down time in these things, but if they ask you what you want, you might think about this.)  Such a meeting is a good time to ask questions about women to men ratio, whether they feel like they're "always" being asked to be on committees because they're women (an important clue to how overworked you may or may not feel) and whether the campus is mom-friendly.

3.  What if you're pregnant?  I think the same applies as in the first round interviews.  If you're past the time you can travel, I'm not sure what you might do.  There is always an option for virtual conferencing.  Anyone out there had the experience of being pregnant while on campus?

4.  What if you're breastfeeding?  Ah, well, I have a story about this. Having given birth to a premature baby who had JUST transitioned to breastfeeding from bottle feeding, I did not think I could leave my baby at home during a two day interview.  So I discussed it with the hiring committee chairperson and opted to bring the baby, PLUS my husband (at my expense) so that he could keep an eye on her.  I also petitioned for time to pump/breastfeed in between interview activities, which is very important.  (See here for a totally different story about breastfeeding and the on campus interview.)   The fact of my baby and her needs made me more direct at this point than I would have been at other times in the interview process, but this is partly to point out how distinctive the on campus round really is.  At this point, they really want to get to know you better, so you have a bit more leeway, PERHAPS

I think that you have think about the situation as a whole - recognize that having family there at the interview is not ideal by a long shot, but it MAY be necessary at points.  Most of the time, though, I'd not bring the family and ask about "down time" on the schedule - then use that time to pump.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Academic Job Search III - First Round Interviews

For other posts in this series:
Beginning a search  Networking      On Campus Interview      Contract       Rejections

So you got a phone call or email inviting you to the first round of interviews.  Excellent.  First hoop jumped through.

Much angst has been lived by graduate students worrying about whether their scheduled first interview time is "good" or "bad" for their prospects.  That is, if the main conference is held from Thursday to Sunday and your interview is 9:00 am Sunday morning, that's got to be "bad", right?  This is on the assumption that later in the conference people are tired and less likely to want to hear you.

That may be so. Truly I have no idea here, but this is, again, one of those things over which you have no control. 

There are two things that matter most, regardless of interview time:
1. First impressions do count.  What my dad always told me is true, even though he's an engineer and not "in academia".  Philosophy PhD Husband did not want to believe what my dad told him at first, because "obviously academia cares about your thinking first and foremost."  Not really.   

2. The hiring committee wants to know that you are "normal."  Read: Your presence in their department will not make extra work for them and, all around, you are the interesting person that they first met in your cover letter and other dossier materials.   In other words, they already suspect these things: confirm and develop them.

Luckily, these things relate to each other.

How to Convey Good First Impressions and Normalcy
You are on display (but only for about half an hour!), so consider carefully how you want to display yourself. (If you prefer a more academic tenor here, consider "performance" a la Judith Butler.)  From the committee's point of view, preferably the "you" that you are should match up with what they read in your cover letter.  (And yes, assume that they've read your cover letter...)
This is the one time where a suit is a good thing even though academic culture, for the most part, does not require suits.  

So what can you tell about someone on first impressions, especially in something as high stakes as a first round interview?

A) How well you deal with nervousness...can you press on despite your self-doubts, your anxiety, and the voices of your spouse/mother/children/friends screaming that THIS HAS GOT TO LEAD TO A JOB because you're broke.  Can you smile like you mean it, even if the rest of you is shaking?  (Cue Kipling's "If" poem here....)  Can you show your courage, your stamina, your ability to go with the situation as it is even though you have no control over it?

This is actually a key test in academia. I've been talking with graduate students over the last couple weeks about "Imposter Syndrome", the idea that one doesn't belong here, or deserve to be here.  The feeling never goes away, at least not for me.  I wonder, if it does go away, that might be just as detrimental as misplaced nervousness because you come across as too aggressive and sure or yourself.

But also consider - there will be many times on the job when you'll have a similar kind of situation: facing students in a new class, meeting the tenure and promotion committee, hobnobbing with the trustees, interacting with media calls (those rare times when non-academic media want sound bytes for their articles on homelessness or politics or women in the workplace or whatever).  Can you be the "expert" the world expects you to be because you have a PhD, even though you know, as Socrates did, that you really know very little?

In my very first first-round interview, I totally bombed it because I was so nervous that I spent the precious little time asking questions about people who were in the department but not in the room.  NOT a good strategy.   They thought I was just interested in the "big names" in the department and all my talk didn't give them a sense of me as a teacher or researcher.

B) How organized and/or prepared you are....  

The members of the hiring committee will likely ask three categories of questions:
  • Teaching questions: How do you see your teaching role?  How would you teach _______ class?(usually they'll specify a class you'd teach in the ad or in the phone call inviting you to the interview) How do you teach writing?  How do you teach with technology?  And other specific questions related to the teaching paragraph and/or teaching philosophy you sent in your dossier.
  • Research questions: Be prepared to discuss your dissertation in 3 minutes, pitched to educated lay people.  Don't presume your committee knows all of the big names you've studied for your dissertation, even if Mr. Studies Big Names himself is on the hiring committee.  Also be prepared to discuss further research directions.
  • Institutional questions: have you looked beyond the job ad?  Do you care about the school for itself, or are you just looking like someone who applied for every.single.job advertised, regardless of potential fit?  Can you at least describe how you would fit into the school?
Prep those questions, write out the answers, and perhaps even put them in a nifty folder so that you can quickly review them before your interview because you will be too nervous to remember the cool answer you wanted to give.

One help for the nervousness that also makes you look amazing:
Bring handouts: extra CVs in case the committee needs them, copies of a potential syllabus or book list of a class, list of future research projects, abstract of a dissertation, and similar.

The All Important Post-Interview Tips:
1. Send a thank you note to the committee chairperson.  Email is fine, especially if that's the way they've been communicating with you.  Hand written is always nice, though may not arrive before the committee makes its decision, if that matters to you.

2. Indulge in post-interview review with friends, preferably ones who will tell you to let all the mistakes roll off your back, especially the ones that loom so large in your own eyes.  Learn from the big mistakes, forget the small ones.  One of my own big gaffes was answering a question about technology and teaching by giving a mini-lecture on why powerpoints are not a great thing in the classroom.  Not my finest hour and perhaps one of the reasons that they didn't call me back for a second round interview.  But it reminded me that the first round interview is NOT the place to give those mini-opinionated lectures!

The committee will probably see between 10-20 candidates, all of whom will be nervous, and all of whom will make some mistakes.  Will the hiring committee remember those mistakes?  Maybe, but they also remember the total picture that you present. If you did your research on the school and if you answered as positively as you could (and gave no stupid mini-lectures) you should at least be able to hold your head up high.  At this point, it is, yet again, not about you.

Special for Women/Moms: I'll just reiterate what I said in my "Networking" post about being able to speak to feminist concerns.

There is at least one special additional situation to consider, though: what if you're pregnant at that first round interview?  This has happened, and actually it happened to me... I was not able to attend the conference where all the hiring was done because I would have been 36 weeks along - no airline would take me - and of course, I knew this when I sent in my dossier.  In the cover letter, I mentioned that I wouldn't be able to be at the conference but would be happy to speak by phone further.  I did not mention the specific reason at that point, but I did mention it once they called for the first round interview.

How much do you say?  It's a bit of a tense situation to negotiate because you don't want "Might Immediately Take Maternity Leave When She Arrives Here" as a reason for them not to hire you.  It's illegal anyway, but the hiring committee may ask the gauche questions anyway.

I think it depends how far along you are. If you're in the first trimester, don't worry about saying anything at all, since it's fairly standard in the culture at large not to mention pregnancy until the highest danger for miscarriage has passed.  Bring along all the things that prevent you from having morning sickness or be prepared to excuse yourself quickly if need be.

If you're in the second trimester or early third trimester, and especially if you're showing, someone might actually ask the illegal questions.  They shouldn't but it happens.  You can elect not to answer.  You can take whatever action you might be able to take in that case.  You can also try to come up with a bland answer like that shows that you are (or seem to be) in control of the situation: "I am pregnant and we are developing a plan about the baby once I am working."  No need to give details.

Any other tips out there?  Things I've missed?  Please send them along....

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Academic Job Search II - Networking

For the other posts in this series:
Beginning a search  First Interview       On Campus Interview      Contract       Rejections
In the general workplace, the standard job-seeking adage is: "It's not what you know, it's who you know."  That doesn't really work in academia because it IS, in part, what you know (or how you think?).  One of the standard adages in the academic job search is, instead,: "You get your first job because of your advisor's work; you get your second because of the work you do."  In other words, the network of people your advisor knows is really important for that first job; you, as a beginning graduate student, are presumed to have not much of a network.

This is a holdover from the days when previous generations of scholars really did rely heavily on their advisors for their jobs.  Indeed, I think many academics in the past could get away with not networking in the sense we might mean today. A phone call was often all that was needed to land a job somewhere and if one wanted to progress, a well-placed article in a top journal could do the trick.  The network functioned much differently than it does today, for the most part. (Philosophy PhD Husband claims that his field still does kind of operate in this way.)

I wonder how true this is anymore.  OF COURSE,  letters of recommendation are extremely important and in general I suspect that having a letter from a more well-known professor is a boon for an applicant. (Though it may also be a hindrance - students of Stanley Hauerwas have long suspected that they get jobs in certain places because of their advisor's work, while not even getting a second glance in other places, because of their advisor's work.  Is this true?  We shall never find out.  The academic job search is not known for transparency.)

On the other hand, there are schools (often smaller liberal arts schools) that tend NOT to hire those from big name schools or with big name advisors because they're worried about the Attrition Effect.  That is, there's a sneaking suspicion among academics that everyone wants a job "up the ladder" and everyone wants to be at an R1 (research school with low teaching requirement) university.  Students from big name schools, it is presumed, are the ones that especially can break into R1 atmospheres, and so they're the first ones to leave smaller schools.  So why not short-circuit THAT eventuality by hiring someone who is from a less-well known school and less hireable by R1s?

It's a cultural assumption and it's not clear to me how true that is. It's just not clear to me how much of a "ladder" really exists in academia.  It seems to me that it's more about figuring out what balance of teaching, research, and service works for you, and that the R1 hankering is more of a false desire instilled in graduate school because so many PhD programs are at R1s.  Plenty of PhDs have their fill of R1 academic life in graduate school and have decided it's just not for them because they love teaching more.  Plenty of PhDs at liberal arts colleges have found ways of doing good research even while having a high teaching load - and dare I say, even do better research than some at R1s because they've had to make time to do it and stick to it more than those who have perhaps a bit too much time on their hands.  (Which is to say: when you're applying, don't preclude community college jobs or high teaching load liberal arts colleges just because the prevailing attitude in graduate school is that an R1 is the best place to be.  Community college listings, by the way, do not tend to be listed in the national conference journals.)

All of the above ought to demonstrate what I pointed out at the end of "Academic Job Search I" - so much of the job search is NOT about you.  There's an "academic voodoo" at work that will leave you scratching your head wondering, "Why NOT me? Why didn't I get that interview/job/book contract?

So instead, let's focus on the things you can worry about when it comes to networking...

1. Do rely on your advisor, but not overly so.   Definitely get your advisor's advice but don't leave it there.  Do some networking yourself.

2. Network at national conferences - Most conferences now allow graduate students to be members - use that to your advantage.  Submit a paper proposal but even if you don't get one accepted, try to get to the conference anyway.  (NB: hostels and sleeping on floors are cheap housing options.)  Publishers flock to these things.  Use the time to browse the books of various publishers to see which ones publish in your area(s).  Perhaps even talk to an editor about your project and see what the result is.  Go to publishers' cocktail parties.  Introduce yourself to speakers at panel presentations and say what/how/why their work interests you, along with mentioning that you are a graduate student at such-and-such school and might be looking for a job in the near future.

3. Network at regional and institutional conferences - Be one of the people to volunteer to pick up people from the airport, or attend dinners with guests.   Paper acceptances are often easier here; use that to your advantage because you never know where that random conversation you have after your paper session will get you.

4. Devise a graduate student conference at your institution (with help from friends) -  Getting to know graduate students in your field is an excellent way to network.  That grad student you meet this year may be on a hiring committee at an institution in a year or two. Invite a non-grad student scholar to give a keynote.  A) It can go on your CV and B) it's another person you've gotten to know.

5. Research Assistantships - Take advantage of the work your professors give you to make connections with other scholars, if those opportunities come up.  Copy editing, organizing conferences, and the like are all helpful ways to network.

6. Others?  Any one else have good networking tips for graduate students or even faculty members?

Special Tips for Women and Moms: Women, I hate to say this (I really do) but it is still the case, I think, that women are expected to "know" something about feminist theory in relation to their fields.  While I think it need not be the case that you must write a dissertation on feminism, I think it is very likely that a school will presume "feminist theory" and ask you a question about gender.  So it's a good idea at least to have familiarity with gender questions in your field and to have read some books.  Take a class if you can; otherwise attend some feminist theory sessions at conferences (or attend a feminist theory conference) and do some networking there.  Women, too, have a network - it isn't just about the "old boys' network" anymore.

[NB: Men, I think it's often seen as something uniquely good if you, too, can contribute intelligently to gender conversations.]

At the same time, a caveat: women and especially moms, may find themselves gravitating toward precisely gender related topics that they're experiencing in their lives.  I'm currently on maternity leave and find myself suddenly interested in The Moral Life of Babies.  Other topics might include the history of motherhood or marriage, the biological mothering drive, the psychology of children, et cetera.  I think it's excellent to think about these topics.  I also think you'll want to consider carefully how wedded you want to be to "traditional women's issues."  Some people end up making that their focus; others end up feeling stuck there.