Of my 7 campus visits, two have been for assistant/associate searches.
I am sure there are plenty of circumstances where this is a reasonable and fair thing to do. I am sure there are plenty of cases where beginning (even ABD) assistant professor candidates without book contracts triumph over associate professors at Ivy League schools with one or two very well-received books out.
I just have not been part of these searches.
The first of these said searches, of course, was my infamous Year 1 visit with Undergraduate Alma Mater, where my direct competitor was an associate professor at an Ivy League school who had appeared on the Charlie Rose show. Surprise – I did not get that job. (She, of course, turned it down).
The second of these searches, far more sanely organized but no less bizarre in its own way, took place early in the season this year. The job ad at Ivy League University was for an assistant/associate professor of the history I study but for a time period which predated the bulk of my research (and I work on a country where the divide between early modern and modern is pretty important). I have a degree in Modern European History – this job was for 1500-1815. One chapter of my entire seven chapter dissertation handled anything between 1500-1815. I explained this to my recommenders and applied anyways.
I did not expect much to come of this, and so I was surprised to receive an email from the SCC within a week asking for all syllabi, articles and my dissertation. I worked frantically throughout the weekend to design several early modern syllabi and sent them, along with my research, to the committee. Three weeks later I was startled to receive a skype interview invitation. I told my recommenders – Advisor and Third Reader – and arranged around my 4 prep teaching load for the semester.
The interview itself went well, although it was certainly not my most polished performance. This was largely due to the fact that they kept asking how my work related to EARLY MODERN history and what EARLY MODERN classes I could see myself offering and what the most difficult part of teaching EARLY MODERN Europe was (seriously, they emphasized EARLY MODERN when they spoke). I had to refrain from laughing.
That night I received an email from Third Reader’s Close Buddy, who we might remember from my tangled, highly unfortunate campus visit at R2 University during Year 2. Close Buddy, I should add, is an associate professor who legitimately works on the early modern period of said country. I hadn’t heard from him since his non-apology after my rejection from said campus visit – a year and a half earlier – so the fact that he was suddenly contacting me at my employer university email trying to make chitchat and forwarding me a fellowship application which I think everyone had seen – was suspicious. Then I realized that the words “early modern,” mentioned in the fellowship announcement he had forwarded, were in red letters. Deeply shaken by the memory of that unpleasantness and angered that I was apparently the subject of gossip by people (Third Reader, obviously) who should know better, I immediately worried about what I saw as the very off chance that both he and I got campus visits at Ivy League University and then he did something crazy like say nasty things about me there, thus effectively ruining both his and my chances. I did not think this eventuality was likely, but just to guard against it I swore not to tell Third Reader anything else.
Three days later I received a call from SCC. They wanted me to come to campus in less than three weeks.
During the next few weeks, I spent every Monday night sleeping on the floor of my office because I did not have time to commute back home. In between the 4 preps I was teaching, I frantically rearranged a job talk that was “early modern.” I resolved to know it so well that I didn’t need notes (“do not read” had been the advice given by search committee chair). I revised and practiced for hours. I told only a few friends and advisor, swearing her to secrecy.
It is hard to capture just how much I hoped against desperate hope that I would get this job, despite all the various ways (time period, rank) that I was at a disadvantage. I contemplated offering to convert to a religion if I could get a said deity on board with the plan, or sacrificing a limb or digit if this would appease the thirsty gods who had cursed me(indeed, I had a list of the very few things – namely the lives and health of my friends, family and cat – that I wouldn’t sacrifice for said position). All this was despite the fact that I knew that assistant/associate searches are frequently geared to finding associates – and, the night before I left, I realized that I was up against an associate professor at an R1 university, a legitimate early modernist whose work was more conventionally trendy than mine with whom I had been on a panel at a conference once and who had deeply impressed me – even though she had just left grad school at the time – with her polish and professionalism. My heart sunk when I heard this, but, believing in some wild sense of my own specialness, I got on the plane the next morning.
The plane narrowly escaped tornado-force winds that grounded several subsequent flights. “Providential,” declared my thesis advisor who had apparently been worrying about this eventuality. And indeed, when I arrived at Ivy League University, it was a bit like dying and somehow being admitted to heaven – everyone was so nice, the weather clear and crisp, the campus gorgeous, so many great conversations amazingly related to my own subject area, everyone was so witty. The undergrads and grad students I met seemed like engaged, interesting people. In this dream world, people mentioned adjuncts like some exotic phenomenon, complained about not getting writing done on a 2-2, and wondered how I was not only still “alive” but capable of publishing given my load. They said things like “the problem is we just have too many job talks because we’re always hiring people” or “you can’t even really go to all the cultural events; it’s a problem.” Yes, I thought a problem. The SCC took me out for dinner the night I came in at a very lovely restaurant where I had duck. Accustomed as I was to dining with entire search committees, I had thought such an intimate dinner would be incredibly awkward; instead we talked seamlessly about all sorts of things for hours. I gave my job talk without notes and I was roundly complimented for it by faculty and grad students.
By the time I flew back, I was willing to part with basically all limbs to get the job.
Since they were a uniquely humane place, they even gave me a day – December 4th- and a time – early evening – on which the department chair would call and let me know either way. And so I waited. I made plans to meet with friends at a favorite bar to deal with either eventuality. I did not want to be alone. I waited. I watched My Cat From Hell on Netflix. The end of the day arrived. The call came. “I’m sorry….” it began. And so the department chair told me the usual “excellent performance, great talk, very professional, everyone liked you… but the department has needs.” Needs. Like some sort of biological organism.
I made it off the phone with polite words and without tears. I was proud of myself.
That night I got so drunk that I apparently danced in the second bar we went to and yet I have no recollection of this. I also apparently did a lot of hugging. I puked all over the bathroom and my pants. I tried to persuade the cabbie and my friends that he was going the wrong way on the mile long drive back from the bar to my apartment. I did not stop throwing up until 7pm the next day, after all the green bile in my system has been expiated upon a towel. I called in sick to the last day of school – must have had a stomach bug.
I did not regret this at all. I did what I had to do. My appetite didn’t really return for three weeks.
In one sense, I felt rather relieved that I still apparently cared about rejection this much. After so many over the past four years, I had worried I was going numb, that I had forgotten what it even meant to let myself want. But that only made the pain worse – there was no shell of “I didn’t really want that” to protect me from the pain. Even though there are perfectly legitimate reasons I could have fabricated for the grapes having been, in fact, bitter, I did not. I just let my sadness and disappointment rest on this lost possibility.
The search chair agreed to talk with me about my performance on the phone. He was very kind. He started out by saying that nothing I had done on campus had lost me the job, that the department had needed an associate professor. He explained that I was the only assistant professor they had felt capable of competing at that level and that I was at an unfair advantage against “associate professors with two books out.” He gave me some critiques, preceding each with “This did not lose you the job, but…”
I made it through 45 helpful moments on the phone without crying. I hung up and bawled in the room where my last group of students, a few hours earlier, had taken their final exam.
Within the next week, through my adviser and then more confidently through a visiting tenured R1 professor in early modern history, I learned that the person who had in all likelihood (“associate professors with 2 books”) gotten the job was an associate professor whose prize-winning first book I had read for a class my first year in graduate school, an associate professor who is a big enough name in the field that one of my friends has published articles disputing his claims, an associate professor old enough to easily be my father.
Well, I thought, that was fair. I realize I should probably be flattered that I have been up against such competitors. At some moments, I can muster this feeling. In most, however, like when the department chair ended his call by saying “I know you will have a great career,” all I feel is that, despite getting as far as I do, I remain teaching a 4-4 load at the third-rate regional university of dubious solvency on a contract set to expire in two years making less per class than I did in grad school and that I have been in this situation for four years despite continually getting close.
I hope I can be forgiven some degree of frustration.