Sunday, March 07, 2010

Getting the job

I've been wanting to write something about process of landing the history job, to reflect a bit on my experiences over the past several years, both to make the narrative clear to myself and because maybe--though I know the job market is prone to brutal whimsy--doing so will help someone else seeking a tenure-track job.

I wince a bit as I write this, as I know some folks from my new university will read this post, and my accounting of events may seem really skewed and possibly inaccurate and narcissistic. But such concerns have never before stopped me, eh?

So, a quick accounting of my intellectual and professional life, in case you haven't bothered to piece together my life story by browsing the 4.5 years of posts in The Clutter Museum archives:
  • I earned a B.A. in English in 1997.
  • I earned an M.A. in English/creative writing (poetry!) in 1998.
  • I worked for a year outside academia.
  • I started dating Fang, and a week later moved to Iowa to pursue a Ph.D. in American Studies.
  • The following spring, Fang wooed me back to California, where I worked outside academia for another year, and I applied to one grad program, sort of on a lark.
  • I started a Ph.D. in cultural studies at UC Davis in 2001.
  • I finished my dissertation in 2006.
  • I went on the academic job market in four of the five years between being ABD and now. During that time, I applied for about 100 jobs, mostly in academia. The only interviews I had were on the edges of the academy: to manage the public history and public science programs for a city, to direct a new teaching center (a position that came with a tenure-track job), and to direct professional development opportunities for staff and volunteers at a consortium of 23 museums and cultural institutions. It was clear from the day I spent touring the city with the other candidates that I wasn't as qualified as they were for first job, the second job was closed due to lack of funding, and the third went to an internal candidate.
  • Meanwhile, I worked as a pedagogy consultant in academic technology and then transferred into my current job, where I am--I kid you not--"Assistant to the _______ I" in a teaching center. I've spent much of the past 3+ years consulting with faculty on teaching with and without technology.
So that's the standard narrative, the one you'd get if you looked at my CV or handed me a glass of wine and asked me about the academic job market for a Ph.D. in cultural studies.

But there's another narrative, one that is less obvious but, I think, more relevant. In this version of events, my graduate program did nothing to prepare me for the realities of the job market. Instead, a little intellectual and technological curiosity propelled me to the point I'm at today.

In fall 2005, I started this blog, and in January 2006, I became a contributing editor for research, academia, and education at BlogHer.

In 2006, I also attended the BlogHer conference in San José. There I met three women whose blogs I was already reading: Barbara Sawhill (of Oberlin), Barbara Ganley (then of Middlebury), and Laura Blankenship (then of Bryn Mawr). Individually, these women are amazing. Together, they are awesome. We hooked up with Martha Burtis from the University of Mary Washington (one of my erstwhile almost-almae matres) and began talking about teaching in technology, about the strictures of course management systems and the possibilities of social media. We took our show on the road, presenting moderating conversations and doodle fests at education and technology conferences. Inspired by the Barbaras, Martha, and Laura, I experimented with technology in my teaching and became, well, maybe a little too comfortable with it. But I definitely became more conversant in educational technology than most folks who teach undergrads, and it helped me tremendously in my professional development on both the academic and staff sides of my higher ed career.

Also in 2006, I started a blog about museums. It drew the attention of the director of a museum studies graduate program about an hour down the road. She remembered my name from a question I asked on a museum history listserv a few years earlier, and apparently she had been cyberstalking me until I finished my Ph.D. When I had the degree in hand, she contacted me and asked if I would teach the history and theory course. What I didn't tell her is that I was actually thinking about enrolling in the program. When she went on sabbatical in winter and spring quarters of 2009, I oversaw the students' Master's theses.

At the teaching center, I taught a nine-week seminar in college teaching once a year to grad students and postdocs. I consulted with faculty across the disciplines. I chaired committees for the teaching center and was invited to be on ones outside the center. I then began to receive invitations to chair those committees. I am not a natural networker, and all of these experiences have been invaluable in making me comfortable speaking with faculty and administrators (OK, being a print journalist for several months in 1999 also helped, because I had to learn to pick up the phone and call just about anyone).

I also continued to benefit from mentoring by my dissertation adviser and, later, from coaching by a history professor who was on my dissertation committee. Their generosity with their time and advice has been invaluable in more ways than I can enumerate here. The director of the museum studies program also passed a couple opportunities my way when she was too busy to handle them herself, which resulted in (and I know this sounds weird, but it's oddly true) a very well-placed encyclopedia article.

I also submitted an article to a journal that ended up being a pretty respectable venue, and it was published there this past summer. I must admit that once I had narrowed my choices to three journals, I went with the one whose citation system matched that of my dissertation. I had a toddler, a full-time job, and an adjunct gig, and I was looking for any possible way to save time. I was fortunate that in this case such a decision worked in my favor.

I've been thinking about my professional experience as falling on two tracks: the traditional path to the job market and the unconventional one.

Traditional path:
  • Ph.D. (but with a liability: mine is interdisciplinary, not within a discipline)
  • tons of teaching experience (required for humanities jobs, it seems)
  • fancy shmancy graduate research fellowship at the Smithsonian archives
  • publication
  • conference presentations
  • some minimal kind of service as a graduate student.
Unconventional path:
  • start a blog on academia and motherhood
  • contribute to another blog
  • start yet another blog
  • make fabulous connections via blogging
  • blog connections lead to conference presentations, an adjunct gig in museum studies, and the opportunity to mentor graduate students
  • parlay blogging experience into a job in academic technology
  • transfer academic technology experience to job at teaching center
  • get a ton of administrative and committee experience and be able to talk somewhat intelligently about how the bureaucratic university works.
All of the experiences on the unconventional path are not ones that the average humanities student acquires between starting a graduate program and going on the job market. But they have completely shaped who I am as a writer, a scholar, and a professional more broadly. Blogging has opened up so many opportunities for me, which in turn have led to increased confidence.

Yes, I still have impostor syndrome. I am, after all, embarking on a tenure-track job in a discipline in which I have no academic degrees, no discipline-specific teaching experience, and very little experience as a student myself. (I'm putting together a survey course on the U.S. to 1877, for example, and the last time I took a course that covered such a broad span of U.S. history was in 10th grade.)

But to bring us to the present, here's what I understand about how I snagged my new job:

There were 260 applicants; each member of the five-person search committee looked at 20% of the applications, each of which encompassed only a cover letter, a CV, and letters of rec. My application caught the eye of the person in whose pile my packet landed. So that was totally committee member roulette, as far as I'm concerned; it was more luck than strategy that landed me a videoconference interview.

I did my final prep for this interview--how else?--by writing a blog post. Which I then--stupidly, I thought at the time--mentioned during the interview. I later discovered that at least one search committee member read the blog post and was impressed by my sleuthing into the university's struggles with teaching the liberal arts.

I also let myself be funny during the interview--mostly to keep myself sane and because I was a bit sleep-deprived, but I think it worked to my advantage.

By the point of the campus interview, I had decided that I would squelch any impostor syndrome I was feeling and just let myself be, well, me. And so I talked with faculty and students about the things that interested me--my research, women in academic and museum science, students with disabilities, and local social justice issues--and pointed a couple faculty members to some resources that might be useful to them in teaching and writing grants. I also refused to lecture exclusively to the fifty or so students in the course I guest-taught, even though I knew that attempting an interactive and wide-ranging lesson on material culture, the 1893 world's fair, and technology with someone else's students in the third week of a survey course might be risky. My one capitulation to tradition was that I allowed myself to have the full text of my research talk on my computer screen when I presented it. I don't usually read my talks, but I was a bit nervous about the whole, you know, history thing.

And when one faculty member asked me who my people were, in terms of public history--was I an AASLH or NCPH person, or something else entirely?--I answered that my historians were those I followed on Twitter and via their blogs and podcasts, or whom I met via listservs on topics other than history, and that the conferences I attended were more focused on teaching and learning than on historical research. That was a risky conversation, but I'm glad I had it.

When the same professor asked after my research talk if it was autobiographical, I figured my cover had been blown, in that I was arguing that it was women from outside mainstream academic science who most contributed to the public understanding of natural science. And there I was, an interloper (in my mind), making the argument that I should be hired by a history department to do public history.

My point is this: the process of landing this job, from the time I finished my Ph.D. until I accepted their offer, was marked, it seemed to me at the time, by risk-taking. But the risks, I now see from the other side of the job market fence, were all about remaining authentic to my interests instead of pandering to what I believed theirs to be. In the case of this university, my interests and those of the faculty happened to match up pretty well. So I'm absolutely delighted because I'm starting a job from a position of authenticity; I didn't build up a façade that I'll need to maintain or very carefully disassemble.

I hope the recipe I've shared here--one part luck, two parts authenticity, and two parts unconventional professional development--proves useful to someone else frustrated with a more traditional approach to the job market.


Laura said...

"But the risks, I now see from the other side of the job market fence, were all about remaining authentic to my interests instead of pandering to what I believed theirs to be."

I'm stealing this line. :) Seriously, I think that's been my problem over and over again. Pandering. Doing things that I think will get me hired rather than what I really enjoy. I got my staff job by declaring what I really enjoyed, but then shifted within my job to doing things that I thought would get me promoted. Soul-sucking, it is. I think everyone who's on the market should read this, not to follow its letter, because everyone's path is different. But to follow its spirit, to do things, yes, that will land you a job, but to stay true to your interests and principles.

Alan said...

I respect and applaud you for not only making your path and sticking to it, but for being so open and generous in blogging the process.

It's not just as simple as "I started blogging and got a job!"-- I see this weaving of what you do online as well as in person for creating the connections that opened this opportunity.

It's a great example of the concept of Jon Udell I love and would like to beat the drum for- the important and power of narrating (in blogs or whatever) what we do.

Happy Idaho-ing!

fairbetty said...

I agree with Laura... "But the risks, I now see from the other side of the job market fence, were all about remaining authentic to my interests instead of pandering to what I believed theirs to be."

That's my secret inside wish... I need to risk being authentic more often instead of allowing all the 'no experience, no education, no background' talk to get in my head...

Hmmm... you are inspiring @LeslieMB

Unknown said...

It was only when I decided to be true to my own strengths and interest, and promotion be damned that I found my true niche. Oh, and I got promoted anyway, not because I played 'the game' successfully, but because I didn't.

JoVE said...

Brilliant. I agree with Laura and fairbetty about the important line. Authenticity is so important.

I also like the details of your unconventional path, a path that opened up opportunities that you then took.

Looking forward to following the path as it meanders forward.

Barbara said...

First of all congrats on being offered the position. And for being and staying true to your beliefs and who you are. You now know, via your candor in the interview as well as your presence online, that they know you and you have nothing to hide. But congratulations most of all for squelching that evil imposter syndrome at a crucial moment in the process. May it be gone and stay gone for a long long time.


ArticulateDad said...

Good on you, my friend. Your honesty and authenticity (unquestionable from the vantage of this reader and co-traveler these past few years) has served you well, and deservingly so. We all walk our own paths. I can't say that your recipe would necessarily breed the same sort of success for others. But we all find our own success, so long as we willingly trod that path honestly and authentically. Thanks for sharing your journey so far.

Fang Bastardson said...

What's this about a job?

Lilian said...

WOW!!! Nothing short of amazing, your experience has been. And feel pretty sad I joined in so late in the game, but exhilarated that it was not "too late" in the sense that I can still catch up a bit and learn from you.

Like our mutual friend Articulate Dad said, your recipe may not work for other people (e.g. I doubt that my experiences blogging will ever bring me closer to any work -- although I haven't really taken any risks with it, only networked and met people, Laura, for example), but it's definitely AMAZING to realize that it had even taken place at all!! That someone was authentic and passionate and made it!

Just the thought of it makes all the difference to me, in terms of continuing to be authentic and passionate.

What you said? "I'm starting a job from a position of authenticity" is my dream and has been for as long as I can remember.

Thank you so much for sharing your experience. Blogging really is life-saving and brings incredible rewards to one's life and -- why not? -- career!

L said...

I was so motivated by your post that I had to go ahead and write a post of my own about it. :-)

L said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anjali said...

Found you through Lilian's post. Congratulations!

There is a lesson here, I think, about the power of blogging.

connie said...

Wow, Leslie. You never fail to impress but I had no idea how dedicated you've been to pursuing your vision...authentically! :-) No wonder you got the one-in-260 job offer!