Monday, December 11, 2006

More Weird Things about Searching While T-T

In our second year on the t-t, BFF sent out a few applications, and she got an interview at a Dream Job. I went for a drink with her immediately after said interview, and she knew, with implacable certainty, even in that close proximity to the interview, that she'd blown it. And this wasn't just angst talking - she really knew it. She said to me, at the time, that she'd forgotten how to think since beginning (at the same time that I did) at our current institution.

Of course, I said all the things you're supposed to say to a friend who tells you that. And then she recounted the interview to me in detail, and I said, "Wow. That really sucks. Let me buy your drink."

So flash forward to this evening. I've been working on preparing for my interview (rather than grading, natch). (Aside: Can I just tell you how much better I feel now that I'm no longer waiting? I'm so much better with controllable things, like going on the internet and finding lists of potential MLA interview questions and then typing out answers to all of them. Lest you think I'm insane, this is exactly what I did when I went on the market the first time, and I maintain that it is not procrastination but really quite good practice. You type them all out, and then you print them out and take them with you, and you read them over and over again - almost but not quite memorizing them, as if you memorized you'd sound like a fool - and really, it makes interviewing much more relaxing.)

So yes, I've been preparing for my interview by coming up with answers for potential MLA interview questions, and I think for the first time that I understand BFF's position at that Dream Job Interview That Went Awry. I'm finding it incredibly easy to answer questions that relate to teaching, that relate to institution, even the dreaded, "why do you want to leave your job," etc., but when it comes to the research questions, I find myself confused. And I've been an active researcher. And I've been through this before. This should be no problem, right?

I mean, last time out, when I was still finishing my dissertation, my experience was exactly opposite of this one, even though I'd done much less research-wise. I felt like I was bull-shitting the teaching stuff, and the research stuff came easily. "What theorists have most influenced your work?" No problem! "What critics do you engage and how does your work differ from theirs?" Easy as pie! "What is the intervention that you make in your field?" Child's play!

Strangely, these are now the questions that seem most opaque to me. In spite of the fact that I'm more respected now as a researcher, I have much more engagement with research in my field on a much broader scope, and I have more familiarity with what institutions seek when they look at somebody's research.

On the one hand, I think the problem is one of knowing too much. Last time, I was so green. I actually had utter confidence in my research the last time out - maybe because I had more experience with that than I did with teaching in my field - I don't know. Now, I've got a much clearer sense of the significance (or insignificance) of my research. I'm not saying that to be self-deprecating - it's just, well, I know that I'm not (yet) some sort of high-flyer. When I was in grad school, well, we were all made to feel like we were high-flyers or potential high-flyers or like we should be high-flyers. All of that can lead to utter confidence.

(Aside: this also explains a lot to me about some of my cohort from grad school who have as yet been unsuccessful on the market. They haven't figured out who they are yet - they still believe the hype. Apparently, though, nobody else is believing it, and that's not a recipe for happiness.)

On the other hand, what if I've forgotten how to think since I got this job?

Ok, so that's not true, and I know it. But I have forgotten the language of this stuff. (This was also something I realized when I attended a panel at MLA last year with people from my grad institution. I mean, I found it hard to pay attention, let alone to understand what the hell they were talking about.) Nobody at my current university has ever wondered what theorists I use in my work. I mean, hell, some of my colleagues don't even have active research agendas. (I'm not judging that - it's just a fact.) At my institution, a publication in a top-notch journal gets exactly the same praise as an encyclopedia entry. No distinctions are made, and no questions are asked. Any publication is good publication. Any presentation at any conference is as good as another. On the one hand, this has been very liberating for me as a scholar. I think I've come into my own here precisely because nobody gives a crap about what I do. I've been, dare I say it, "free." (Except from the voice of my dissertation director in my head, but that's my own issue, right?) But my point here is that people are happy here if I just do something and they don't necessarily have any interest in knowing the ins and outs of it. At my grad institution, people were always quizzing one about the ins and outs of one's work, and thus, one was quite prepared for being quizzed about such things on the job market. (No, this did not make for a "pleasant" or "enriching" grad school experience. But it did train me well.) And now, as I try to write answers to these questions, I'm rusty.

Add to this the less practical issue that I don't think that my research fits into easily categorizable terms. (I know, everybody probably thinks this, but just stay with me for a second on this one.) One of the things that this "liberation" from quizzing has resulted in is that I've tended to branch out a bit in my approach to the combination of theory and literature, and what that means is that I can no longer consider myself a Theoristian. When I went on the market the first time, I was a Theoristian. Period. Sure, I nodded at other theorists, but they didn't make a crucial difference to my work. Now, the closest I can come to a One Thing I Am answer is a Not-Derridian, and that's not particularly useful. The thing that I think is most interesting about the work that I do is the odd combinations of theory that I use in order to read the texts that I study. (Incidentally, I'm not using odd combinations on purpose; I use the combinations I use because I think they are - well - the most useful for the questions that I ask. They don't seem "odd" until others comment on their "oddness" to me.) I suppose I'll figure it out. At any rate, at least I'm thinking about this stuff now, even if I've not thought about it since grad school, so I won't be blind-sided if they ask me these sorts of questions.

In contrast, the answering of the teaching questions is CAKE. How do I teach a survey? Well, given the fact that I've been teaching it consistently since 2003, I've got lots of answers for that. How would I teach an upper-level course in my field? Well, let me tell you about the three I've taught most recently. How do my research and teaching influence one another? I could go on and on.

So we'll see how I do. But I wanted to post about this because it's been a revelation. I never realized the way that teaching would dominate once I started working in this field. But it does, at least at my kind of institution. It's not that one stops researching, but one does stop thinking about it in the same ways. And one stops (at least in my case) talking about research in the ways the one did in graduate school. I don't think that this is a bad thing, actually. It's actually probably a pretty good thing. Just not good for the job search.

7 comments:

Shaun Huston said...

I've mentioned before, thought not lately, that you and I work at similar places. The attitudes towards research and scholarship are almost identical: be active, show evidence of your activity, but no pressure to present here or publish there. Like you, I've enjoyed the freedom this brings, but I would be hard pressed to define my "research agenda." Over the past few years, I've pursued a number of projects that I can certainly tie together in my own head and probably in public if pressed, but they don't add up to some clear contribution to this or that field or subfield. I'm not saying that this is quite the same as your current situation, but what you wrote made me think about how prepared I would be to explain my research to a search committee at a category I school, and I think I'd have trouble.

Anonymous said...

You know, my two years on the market I had quite the opposite experience. I had relatively little trouble with the teaching questions (especially last year, when I was in my lectureship, but even in my first year, and even with as comparatively little teaching as I did as a grad student)--but I found the field-specific questions were often a real challenge. Sure, I could talk intelligently about my work and answer some of the expected questions smoothly. . . but when someone wanted to know, unexpectedly, about what I thought about Scholar Y's contribution to the field? Or how my work responded to Scholar Z (someone important, but who didn't work on anything really close to my own stuff)? Or how I'd defend my period as a coherent whole to someone interested in challenging it? I just didn't have the confidence in my command of the field as a whole--I only felt assured of my own little corner of it.

I think that mine is an atypical reaction, given the way we're all trained--but I've always been bad at the grand synthesis. I'm hoping that a few years of teaching more broadly within my field, and having the time to read and research more broadly, too, will cure me of some of this. But you're not filling me with hope, here!

Anonymous said...

You know, my two years on the market I had quite the opposite experience. I had relatively little trouble with the teaching questions (especially last year, when I was in my lectureship, but even in my first year, and even with as comparatively little teaching as I did as a grad student)--but I found the field-specific questions were often a real challenge. Sure, I could talk intelligently about my work and answer some of the expected questions smoothly. . . but when someone wanted to know, unexpectedly, about what I thought about Scholar Y's contribution to the field? Or how my work responded to Scholar Z (someone important, but who didn't work on anything really close to my own stuff)? Or how I'd defend my period as a coherent whole to someone interested in challenging it? I just didn't have the confidence in my command of the field as a whole--I only felt assured of my own little corner of it.

I think that mine is an atypical reaction, given the way we're all trained--but I've always been bad at the grand synthesis. I'm hoping that a few years of teaching more broadly within my field, and having the time to read and research more broadly, too, will cure me of some of this. But you're not filling me with hope, here!

Anastasia said...

you're a bricoleur! at least, that's what people in my field say about people who use odd combinations of theory. eclecticism, they call it. And the theoristians jump up and shout: "No! It's just sloppy!"

k, i'm done now.

Dr. Virago said...

Bullock and I often worry that we've forgotten how to think from being at our institution, and I think I'd be going through exactly the same thing you're going through now if I were on the market. I feel like my research is all over the place, that I'm following whims -- which is *great* -- but would also make it hard to answer all those questions that I felt so comfortable answering in previous markets. And while I may or may not go on the market next year -- in which case, you're giving a jump on how to think about it, so thanks! -- I would like to appear to have a coherent research agenda for tenure, even though it's not absolutely necessary for my institution. I just want it for myself.

OK, I'm babbling. And I have no advice to offer. All I can say is: I hear ya!

Anonymous said...

I would kill for the opportunity to *not* be hammered about my reserach every time I go out in public where there are grad students. Seriously :)

Yay for the interview by the way! I don't think I'm going to the MLA, but I would love to meet you and have a drink if I was. Maybe next year.

Anonymous said...

Heh...that would be "research."