Warrior Tales: My First Job Search 3

After that conversation with Barb I pulled out of my depression.  Despondency was getting me nowhere.  I had financing for the rest of the year and a dissertation to complete.  That was the first order of business. Perhaps with degree in hand I would stand a better chance on the job market.  I resolved to stay in New Haven, finish up, and try again in the fall.  Meanwhile, I would look for stop-gap employment.  If worse came to worst, I could survive for another year on savings.  That would give me three shots at landing a teaching job.  Three strikes, and I would have to think about changing careers.

So I went forward with this plan, slogging ahead with the dissertation while exploring entry-level or temp jobs at Yale.  There were some possible admin or support positions, including sub-sub deanships, assistant program coordinators, and the like that would have kept me in bread but felt, at this point, like potboilers.  I thought about writing on the side, for self esteem as much as anything.  But in any event the positions wouldn’t come open until summer. There was nothing for it but to finish the diss, which seemed an increasingly hopeless chore.  What was it for?  Wouldn’t it just mean I would emerge overqualified for anything other than college teaching?

By the middle of March I had become inured, both to winter and to the general hopelessness of my prospects.  But then, unexpectedly, a call came from the department secretary.  They had heard of two temporary positions that might be attractive, “given your unusual interests.”  She meant, of course, mountains, wilderness, and nature in general.  Remember that this was the heyday of deconstruction; no one at Yale had heard of the nature writers, and ecocriticism was not even a blip on the horizon.  The positions  were at the universities of Montana and Utah, so of course she was right.  Both wanted a “utility infielder” to teach interdisciplinary humanities courses for the next three years, a perfect fit for a comparatist.

I applied right away and heard back within two weeks: a form rejection from Montana but from Utah an invitation to interview on campus. I remember stepping out of the plane to the uplifting sight of the snow-covered Wasatch Mountains towering eight thousand feet above Salt Lake City.  No doubt it was my enthusiasm as much as my degree that got me the job.  But after a winter of despair resided over by dismal numbers, it felt like a stroke of the purest luck. And three years seemed like all the time in the world.

What had I done to deserve this?  No more nor less than any of my grad student colleagues.  I was prepared for failure.  But I got lucky.  I got a start.  At the time it felt like a lottery, just like they were using for the draft.  It seemed a matter of chance rather than justice.  But all the same, before you can stay in the game, you have to get in.  And once you’re in, there’s a whole other set of issues to deal with.

But more on that later.  What did I learn from this experience?  First, you can do everything right and still not get hired. Qualifications are necessary but not sufficient; you also need luck and chemistry, both of which lie well outside your control.  Second, you need friends. Barb’s innocent comment shook me loose from paralysis, and I realized that no one would talk to me if all I did was mope and complain.  Third, you need a plan and you need to keep working.  Idleness only feeds depression, and almost any plan is better than none, as long as it gets you moving, and besides, you can always change it as things develop.  And finally, a bit of savings can make a huge emotional difference.  Knowing I could get by for a year gave me breathing room to imagine alternative futures.

These lessons paid off dramatically in the years ahead. I also saw them reflected in the experiences of colleagues and friends, both in  job searches and tenure reviews.

Warrior Tales: My First Job Search (2)

Back in school after the MLA convention I resumed my grad student routine, working at home in the morning and then trudging to the library in the afternoon.  Leafless New Haven was wrapped in what that old Connecticut Yankee Wallace Stevens had called a “wintry slime.”  The days were short, the wait was long.  Everything felt cheerless, dark, and deadly.  By the end of January it became clear that I would not be interviewing on any campus.  I had failed in the job search.  How could this have happened, when always before I had gotten top grades and succeeded with every application?  How was I going to live when my fellowship and GI bill ran out?  What was I going to do next year?

Having never imagined any career other than teaching—having, indeed, considered teaching a vocation rather than a job—I had no idea, no Plan B.  By early February I had become seriously and uncharacteristically depressed.  I could not concentrate on reading; I could hardly write, not even notes or sketches.  My guts hurt like a clenched fist.  I slept lightly and woke in a sweat from anxious dreams.  But by day I tried to keep up appearances, as if routine itself would somehow magically compensate for the disaster ahead.

One day as I walked in to campus past a row of stately mansions that the university had purchased for offices, a door opened and my friend Barbara came out of the anthro department.  She had been working on a dissertation in Old Norse when her advisor had suddenly died, and no one else in the English department had been willing to take her on.  Then her fellowship had expired.  Now she was trading water as a secretary.  She waved and smiled, “Hey JT, how’s it going?”

“Aw, Barb,” I said, “no interviews. I’m depressed.”

Her jaw dropped, “But you’re the blithe spirit!”

I shrugged, waved, and went on, thinking, “Shit, even my friends won’t let me be depressed.  This is the worst!”  But at the same time I realized the utter futility of it.  The feelings were real—the worry, the anger, the sense of injured merit—but they weren’t getting me anywhere.  Self-pity was not productive; there was no point in wallowing in it.  The thing was somehow to salvage my career and make a living. I had to figure something out.

Barb’s comment, so kindly meant, was really a whack on the side of the head.  I needed it.  It was a necessary, if not a sufficient, condition for moving on.  I would also need luck, and plenty of it.

Rethinking Failure 2

When I was an undergraduate at Dartmouth back in the mythical 1960’s, people were always looking over their shoulders.  The school had a rugged outdoorsman mentality (it was all-male in those days), which compensated rather actively for the intense class work and studying that went on all week. Weekends were devoted to blowing off steam via drinking, skiing, partying, or road trips.  The more studious and intellectual were always looking off wistfully at places like Harvard, thinking that’s where we should have gone, while the more rugged among us vigorously performed our ruggedness as if to prove that, in spite of our smarts, we actually were real men.  In short, you had to succeed both physically and intellectually.

It was little better in grad school.  At Yale there was no rugged outdoor ethos; instead, you had metropolitan envy.  People were always looking over their shoulders at New York, and a kind of star system prevailed.  Prematurely gray faculty with book-white skin plodded between the department and the library, their outsized reputations trailing behind them like stellar magnetic fields.  Between classes, at lectures, during social events you could watch graduate students circling into orbit.  Everyone was thinking about position, reputation, and success.

Either way – and not just in the Ivy League – school was all about success.  It was about meeting goals set by the institution and its agents, the faculty.  We were encouraged to internalize these goals and discipline ourselves to achieve them.  School rewarded us according to performance.  It functioned as what Foucault would call a “governmentality,” and I mean to lay some emphasis on the last four syllables.  As Thoreau observed, “It is bad to have a southern overseer … but worse if you are the slave driver of yourself.”  It no wonder that schools would not teach, nor want to teach, about failure.  The subject is taboo.  And yet it sits on everyone’s mind.

Note how we speak of “failing” a course.  It could be construed in the sense of letting down or breaking down, as in “I failed you” or “the equipment (link, chain, bolt, coupling, component, mechanism) failed.”  Notice here the connotations of betrayal, disintegration, or collapse counterposed to the expectation of integrity, reliability, or strength.  Also of interest is the vivid “flunk”, a word of obscure origin but with a sturdy Anglo-Saxon heft.  It has overtones, as well, of “flush”, “thunk”, or “sunk”.  The onomatopoeia suggests an inert object falling and hitting the floor or sinking into deep water. Inertia is key: the object has no more energy or life, no power of self-motivation.  You can say, “He flunked the course” or simply, “He flunked,” or more expansively, “He flunked out.”   Charles Livingston (American Speech 21:1, 16-18) connects it to “funk”, meaning “to shy away from, avoid, back out.”   This sounds plausible, but where did the “l” come from?  It also occurs in “flop” and “flub”, whose connotations resonate with those of “flunk.”  The Oxford Dictionary of Etymology says that “flop” is a variation of “flap.”  I suppose a flap would flop if it opened and hit the ground.  As for “flub” it, too, is an Americanism “of obscure origin,” arising circa 1920.  Since “flunk” (also an Americanism) first appears circa 1800, its “l” does not descend from either of these but may share a common ancestor.

So, if you flubbed your exam and flunked the course, or worse, flunked out, it would certainly create a flap at home!

But we digress …