This is my talk from the 2016 CCCC in Houston, Texas. It was part of the panel titled, “Demystifying the Job Market: Taking Action toward Transparency through Data and Narrative.” The full title of my talk was, “From Mickey Mouse to Cigar City: What Flexibility, Interdisciplinarity, and a Two-Hour Drive Can do for Employability”
First, let me explain my title. I earned my PhD at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. I didn’t actually wear mouse ears to my graduation ceremony, but I probably could have gotten away with it. The Walt Disney Company employs 65,000 people on a property that’s twice the size of Manhattan Island. The University of Central Florida, on the other side of town, enrolls over 60,000 students on a campus with over 1,400 acres. Large institutions are the lifeblood of the city.
Driving 90 minutes west puts you in Tampa, colloquially called Cigar City for its historical cigar manufacturing plants. Just north of the city, in Saint Leo, Florida, you’ll find a quaint private Catholic teaching institution that employs yours truly. It enrolls 2,500 students on campus. It has no humanities PhD program and just this year created a M.A in creative writing. I am the only non-lit, non-creative writing faculty member. (I’ve had to teach colleagues in my department what I mean by “genre”…it’s been fun.) So how does a homosexual atheist without a PhD in English or composition end up working as the writing specialist at a Benedictine Catholic institution? Gooooood question. I ask that you indulge me for a bit more personal anecdote, and I’ll explain.
While I was working on my dissertation project—which was very pedagogy-centric and tech-infused (without being terribly reliant on it)—I was, of course, applying for jobs. My interest in schools leaned heavily toward small teaching institutions. This preference caught the attention of one of my mentors, who pulled me to the side and asked a well-meaning question that, despite intentions, mildly offended me and presaged other challenges I would face while applying for (and occupying) jobs. This mentor at my R1 school noted the attention I gave to small teaching schools and asked, “Are you selling yourself short?” My mentor was looking out for my career trajectory, but while trying to make me sound valuable, flatly rejected my scholarly values. I believe pedagogy itself warrants research and open discussion, and that my skills are more valuable to a teaching agenda than to a research one. Selling myself short with teaching schools? Quite the opposite.
The specificity of my interests and skills actually hit me when I met Amanda Licastro and members of her cohort: Benjamin MIller and Jill Belli. I was, to put it frankly, intimidated by their work, their projects, their research, and the fact that we were technically competitors in the job market.
Until I realized that we totally weren’t.
See, no search committee would have me on their radars if they were looking for the likes of Amanda, Ben, or Jill. But the reverse was also true—schools that wanted the likes of me wouldn’t even notice them and their projects. That simple yet empowering realization helped me survive my search. I kept thinking about what I did that those three didn’t do. I kept thinking about what got people to raise their eyebrows when I told them what I was researching. I kept looking for what was interesting to others but to me was commonplace. And that’s how I found my job: I learned that I wasn’t selling myself short, but that I was selling myself, period. And the more distinctively I viewed myself, the better I could narrow down my search.
I am exceptionally fortunate in the way my job search went, and I have to acknowledge a number of privileges and advantages worked in my favor even without my effort or knowledge. That said, I applied to a grand total of five institutions, plus my alma mater as a fallback. I knew going in that two of the jobs wouldn’t fit me perfectly, but I wanted to learn what the process was like by applying for a job that was close-but-not-quite. I had a shot, I suppose, but I expected to fail and therefore had nothing to lose and experience to gain. Of the five I applied for, I got one first-round rejection email, four phone/Skype interviews, two on-campus interviews, and one job offer (which I accepted).
My job hunt was exquisitely specific and targeted, thanks to the self-awareness I got from my mentor’s discomforting question and my temporary self-loathing by comparing myself to others. (You my “competition”.) I want to highlight the two factors I think most influenced my ability to find a good fit in the market.
First, my mentor had a valid point: Career trajectories can look very different for folks interested in teaching institutions versus research schools. My program was at an R1, with all the worries and aspirations that entails. Part of what I learned in my PhD program was that I don’t have a strong enough urge to conduct empirical research to justify the life of an R1 professor. The concerns and emphases of teaching institutions appealed to me—they aligned with my priorities, rather than somehow falling short of them. Indeed, there are a number of ways in which the priorities of an R1 fall short of my educational values. Realizing that (mis)alignment helped me keep focus throughout my search.
But I need to say something here about how our graduate programs are designed. If we can talk about the hierarchy of institutional types (you know, the research-privileging beliefs that allow for the idea of “selling myself short”), we need to be aware of those structures when training our graduates—and we need to train graduates both for what our schools are and what they aren’t. This is hard, but it’s essential if we want to ensure future mobility for applicants in our field. Teaching institutions with graduate programs must provide strong training in empirical research, and research institutions must provide strong training in pedagogy. How often do you see those necessary pedagogy courses? How much does it affect our students and the viability of our discipline if that training is scarce?
I’d also like to say more about disciplinary identity and the job market. Sure, a discipline-specific degree helps by making it clear what it is you’ve studied. But my degree is called “Texts and Technology”. Yeah…nobody’s ever sure what that really means. Interdisciplinary degrees have great value, even in a field like this one, working hard to distinguish its own identity. Interdisciplinary degrees benefit applicants, if they play their cards right.
On a large scale, plenty of work is being done these days to define and assert the value of our field. As the conference program introduction to Joyce’s opening talk reads, “the value of what we do is not self-evident to anyone outside this room. That value is a proposition that has to be argued, not just once, but over and over, in many forms, from stories to empirical data, and in many settings.” Those settings include Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle’s Naming What We Know text, which argues that certain kinds of thinking distinguish our field from others, such as marketing communications or literary criticism or creative writing. Those settings also include a forthcoming collection edited by Drew Loewe and Cheryl Ball titled Bad Ideas About Writing, which aims to present fundamental values of the field to an audience of laypeople.
Another important setting for arguing our field’s value propositions arises for those entering the field: Job applicants themselves must argue the value proposition of their specialization. At first, this sounds daunting, as it’s one more thing to keep in mind when interviewing, but it’s an opportunity for self-advocacy. If your degree is in rhetoric and composition, a rhet/comp program knows what you do and whom you’ve read and what you’ve studied. But walk into an interview at a small school with no rhet/comp program, or walk in with a degree in Texts & Technology. The resulting expectant look on the committee’s faces demands that you explain yourself. It’s a chance to tailor, spin, or market your degree (or your field) in the exact terms this one committee would like to hear. If you have a degree in rhet/comp, that opportunity may not arrive until discussions of your dissertation. Interdisciplinary degrees necessitate such discussions pretty early on.
Leverage and Traction
We all know that the interview process is designed to help applicants sell themselves. But rather than making that sound dirty or dehumanizing, we need to look at it opportunistically. Applicants: Know yourself, your expectations, your audience. Strategically apply for exactly what you want, know what would make a school want exactly you, and find a campus that feels like an exact fit. Graduate programs: Know yourself, your expectations, and your audience. (Yep, that the same.) Don’t just design your programs for the kinds of graduates you want. Design them instead for the kinds of graduates the field needs. Are there too few researchers out there? Too few teachers? Too few people who can do both? Make sure you empower your graduates to survive in both environments, and please…help break down the institutional hierarchies by valuing research, teaching, and public-sector work equally. Because the “job market” isn’t just a market for the kind of job you have. Drive two hours down the highway, look around, and then decide how well we prepare our graduates.