Academia is a Seller’s Market

There is a mini-argument amongst some academic bloggers over the way UC-Riverside’s English department scheduled job interviews at the Modern Language Association’s annual convention.  As Megan McArdle recounts at Bloomberg, Riverside emailed applicants to schedule interviews only five days (!) before the convention was to start in Chicag).  For some applicants, that might have meant a flight close to $1,000 (not to mention lodging), a huge bill for a graduate student or fresh PhD, especially given the long odds on eventually winning the job.

The initial story on Riverside’s communication was published on Jan 2 on Inside Higher Ed and evoked lots of angry comments.  They were anticipated by this denunciation, dated December 20th, which termed Riverside professors “Overlords,” “elitist and out of touch,” and “unconscionable,” along with a few f-words.

Tenured Radical, a blogger who uses a name that lost its edgy irony 20 years ago, criticized that response by noting that it might not have been the English department’s fault. Perhaps funding didn’t come through until late, she suggests, or an affirmative action officer delayed the process.

But Inside Higher Ed blames the department:

the committee — using a new system for reviewing applications — discovered two weeks ago that some applications had been read by only one search committee member, and others hadn’t been read at all. The committee tried to catch up, but was still behind. Applications had only started to be reviewed November 25, and there just wasn’t enough time, she said [“she” is the head of the search committee].

Ah, one month, not “enough time,” applications left unread, a “new system” . . .

And then the department chair, Deborah Willis, adds this condescending note which seems perfectly calculated to infuriate every person who has ever failed to earn a regular job or even get an interview.

The job search is, especially for entry-level positions, a stressful, challenging, exhausting process, and I can understand why job seekers would be upset about anything that makes it more stressful. We all have a lot of sympathy for our applicants — especially since we’ve all been through it ourselves. But the big problems are the things that make the job market so terrible in the first place — budget cuts, dwindling support for public universities, the increasing reliance on adjunct faculty, etc. The timing of an interview request seems pretty minor in the great scheme of things.

Does Willis not know that for a graduate student or recent PhD, getting an interview and finding a job is, precisely, the “great scheme of things”?  She seems to act out every allegation of entitlement and incognizance that the adjuncts have leveled against tenured professors for years.

But nothing will come of this.  Neither the errors of judgment and slack organization by the professors nor the warranted indignation of the aspirants nor the sympathy of outsiders changes anything.  As someone said in conversation recently about the drawbacks of the professorate: “Doesn’t matter–they have the jobs.”

McArdle ends her commentary on precisely this realization:

It’s hard to see any alternative to fix the problem, however.  The fundamental issue in the academic job market is not that administrators are cheap and greedy, or that adjuncts lack a union. It’s that there are many more people who want to be research professors than there are jobs for them. And since all those people have invested the better part of a decade in earning their job qualifications, they will hang around on the edges of academia rather than trying to start over. Such a gigantic glut of labor is bound to push down wages and working conditions.

When you have many, many more qualified people than there are positions for them, and when they have spent their 20s preparing to become teachers like those have had since they were 18 years old and won’t give up on the profession until something forces them to, then they will continue to be disregarded.  It’s a seller’s market, and if the buyers (the job applicants) are willing to endure dismissal and condescension on the slim promise of that golden tenure-track post, then it will continue.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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