Well, it's been nothing but radio silence from the hiring committee since the chair responded to my thank-you email two weeks ago. Since I was the third of three candidates, this is clearly the death knoll of my job prospects for this particular job, and I have to say that I want to give up. You see, this wasn't my first golden ticket. I've been applying for tenure track jobs for some time now and this was the third campus interview I've had in the past year and it was by all objective metrics, a VERY successful one too (and that's not just my own observation, other faculty confirmed my initial impression). I loved the campus, the city, the student body, the department, my teaching demo started late because the dean and I got into a great conversation that carried over, but I jumped right into my teaching demo, class was still effectively managed, the students responded well, my reading was pretty damn good, the dinner and the hang-out session with other members of the department both went extremely well too: all in all, my time with the department was a comfortable, smart, funny interesting, organic series of conversations that I really enjoyed (and wanted more of). Of course, there are always things you could improve in any interview, but there's very little I would have changed about THIS one in particular because it went really well in almost every way. But somehow, none of that matters. It wasn't enough, I don't know why, but it wasn't enough, and I'm honestly crushed by this blaring silence because I know what it means. I know what silence means. And now I just want my dread confirmed. Instead, I'll probably suffer several weeks and flirt with impossibility because I'm human, and then feel even more wounded once I get my impersonal rejection email.
Still, a big part of me wants to know: why don't I deserve an offer? Why do I deserve this silence? Why do I deserve to be perpetually excluded from something I'm insanely good at and given my lifeblood to? Why is half my life married to a profession that has never loved me back and that doesn't even value what I do so well?
Part of my devastation is biological too. I'm a bit older than most applicants. Many ABD applicants and younger PhD's still have most of their life to apply to tenure track jobs, but not me. I'm not a young 28-year old recent PhD on the market who has the world at their finger tips and has never tasted rejection (and the real world) before, I'm a writer who has survived (emotionally and psychologically speaking) BECAUSE of my writing. I'm a writer who has lived in developing countries and in other continents, had his share of shit jobs and shit relationships, and come back again and again to the redemption of writing and teaching and scholarship because they have given my life meaning, space, and identity to be the best version of myself. I've traveled extensively, taught literacy and creative writing to students of color as a bilingual Americorps volunteer, and had a stint in the Peace Corps teaching English to students in Burkina Faso, meaning I've lived outside of my first-world comfort, been heartbroken by loss, disappointment, and poverty, given back to the whole world when I could, connected with it, learned from it, and been totally humbled by it many times, but I always returned a better writer, scholar, and human being because of it. And this tenure track job was my opportunity to finally get LB and me out of LA and back into a different state of mind where humanity lived symbiotically with nature, a place with seasons and clean air, a place with a massive upside, dedicated students, and great colleagues. But none of that matters. None of it does. I won't be a tenured professor this year because of fit, not qualifications, scholarly merit, body of work, passion for student-centered teaching, teaching ability, evals, or lack of collegiality, but because of fit (and who knows what else?). I feel rejected by academia, which makes me wonder why I keep defending it. I keep getting my soul crushed by hiring committees and yet I keep applying for a tenure track job that only gives me 1/230 chance.
A big problem with applying for tenure track jobs is that you never learn what you did wrong (if you did anything at all) during Skype or campus interviews (and even if you asked, faculty members aren't legally allowed to say), which means it's virtually impossible to self-correct or improve your interview performance for the next go-around. During my own interviews, as much as I try not to, I can't help but think like a candidate, which is the only thing I know how to do, but the hiring committee is acting like a hiring committee, which means that sometimes, there are unadvertised and tacit criteria they're not allowed to post that play a major role in the selection and hiring process. But being on the other side of that hiring process, I'll never know why it wasn't me. Even studying the eventual hires at universities where I was a finalist often leaves me more confused than before I waited in agony for weeks and sometimes months for a phone call that never came. Most of the time, the candidate who's offered the job doesn't end up having anything objectively better on their CV than I do. If I lose out to a brilliant writer of color with three critically acclaimed novels to her name, one Yaddo residency, and a Macarthur genius grant, you won't hear a single complaint out of me. In fact, I'll begin the slow-clapping for the committee. But usually, that's not what happens. Usually, the results are confusing at best and downright discouraging at worst. I remember one job I was a finalist for last year that eventually hired someone with significantly LESS publications than I did, two LESS advanced degrees than me, and barely a year of teaching experience outside their MFA (not to mention mediocre Rate My Professor evaluations). I learned later that they weren't considered a good teacher even in grad school. Now, obviously my too-big personality wasn't a great match for that department, which I can respect, but the disparity in qualifications, teaching excellence, and publications was deeply humiliating and frustrating to me. How the hell could fit MAKE UP FOR ALL THOSE DISPARITIES? And yet, this feeling of confusion and disbelief is now normative for every academic trying out for the varsity squad, it seems.
The worst part about my life right now is this: there are two things I'm really really good at: teaching and writing, and I can't get called up to the Big Leagues for either. And I'm frankly tired of it. It shouldn't be this hard to get a job that pays $50,000. It shouldn't be this hard to make a living teaching literature and creative writing when so many universities are drowning in endowments and new facilities are popping up fungally and admin jobs (that often duplicate each other and that all pay much more than entry level tenure track positions) are metastasizing inside of the college bureaucracy. It shouldn't be this hard to have job security as an aspiring professor when so many college students want to write and read great writing. But it is, and part of the reason is academia itself, which pumps out way more PhD's than the academic market could possibly absorb because of the millions of dollars it saves employing TA's, adjuncts, and lecturers to do the grunt work that tenured faculty don't. Changing the ethos of a university into a scholarly corporation that maximizes profits and offsets the costs of maintaining a tenure track by relying upon a second-class adjunct labor force helps decrease overhead costs for the university by making non-tenured faculty teach twice as many classes as tenured faculty while being paid half the salary, often with little or no benefits at all. The academe is responsible for all the phantom tenure track jobs that don't exist anymore and the professional apartheid that exists within departments regularly. The academe is responsible for the Darwinian blood sport that occurs every time a new ad for a tenure track job is posted in the Chronicle for Higher Education. The academe is responsible for the perpetual and predictable heartbreak of an exploited, abandoned, marginalized, and rejected intellectual labor force where 70% of PhD's never find tenure track jobs in their area of expertise (despite departments demanding intensely specialized dissertations). In other words, this pain, this creeping and intermittent feeling of having wasted my life for all the lofty ideals of higher education, is absolutely and totally the fault of academia (and the administration that has hijacked the university through corporatization, tenure shrinkage, and the MBA-style cost-benefit analysis of the liberal arts education).
So, yes, academia, I do have a chip on my shoulder because of you. And yes, this might be the end of our relationship for good, which will absolutely be your loss. Just ask my students. On the other hand, I might need to take time away from you for awhile and then later redefine our relationship when I'm finally ready and able to because right now, our relationship feels incredibly one-sided. I just don't know if I can handle teaching the same shit for another year as a lecturer in the fantastic UC system, as great as it's been. I'm really good at teaching rhetoric (I believe) and my evals rock, but I don't love it and I don't think I ever will. So many awesome instructors can teach the same classes as me, but I'd argue that most can't teach creative writing with the same love, passion, innovation, breadth, and empathetic pedagogy that I do, and that's precisely what hurts the most right now. My consummate strengths feel consummately irrelevant to academia and the publishing industry at large. Meanwhile, the invisible-hand-smacking-around-the-market feels incredibly hostile to mixed race scholars/writers like me who'd mentor students and write novels even if I became homeless and/or was living in someone's garage. Just ask my students. They know better than anyone else.