In the anonymous essay below, a contingent faculty member writes about the frustration of an endless search for a tenure-track position, as well as the financial woes that many contingent faculty are all too familiar with.
I guess I could see a case being made for the fault being entirely my own. After all, I got my hopes up—again. No matter how much I try to tell myself that this time, when I mail out that cover letter, CV, and scanned copies of my transcripts, I won’t care, one way or the other, I still end up caring. A lot. Especially in a situation where I feel so perfectly suited to fit the needs of the job.
In any interview situation, I always feel like the pimply-faced geek asking the cheerleader to the prom. I never quite feel like I’m going to appear good enough for the position, even though, rationally, I know that I am. I know, in my heart of hearts, that I am a gifted, dedicated teacher; a competent scholar, interested in a wide range of scholarly topics and issues; and a “good soldier” for the department, cheerfully performing whatever tasks are assigned to me. I can get along with just about anybody. I am not judgmental, confrontational, or hostile, nor do I have one of those “prickly” personalities that takes offense too easily. I am not a plotter and schemer, I am constitutionally incapable of deception or manipulation, and I am not stubborn or lazy. I have a positive outlook on life and the people around me, always believing that they are basically good. I applaud my colleagues’ successes and commiserate with their losses. I do my work, and I do it well. My students, the vast majority of them, respond well to my teaching and go on to lead happy, successful lives. I believe in their abilities, while holding them accountable for their contribution to their own educations. I want them to be satisfied with their own learning and their grades, but I do not sacrifice my integrity, or the integrity of the educational process, in order to manipulate that outcome. I make positive, substantive, and supportive contributions to any department and any school I am a part of. I do not know what more any department could ask of one of its members.
But, the truth of the matter is, for whatever reason, a reason that has escaped me for years and continues to elude me, none of that gets communicated in an interview. Now, mind you: My mother despaired of me when I was child, because in spite of her best efforts to teach me, in her words (and the words of my grandmother, and probably her grandmother before her), to be “gracious and lovely,” I still managed to come off to others as graceless, tactless, mannerless, blunt, rude, and insensitive. I say stupid things that betray my intelligence. I say the wrong things at the wrong times, sometimes hurting people’s feelings without intending to. I put my foot in my mouth. I ask questions that have obvious answers. I come off as clumsy and clueless. I babble, or allow my train of thought to drift way off topic. I seem to have no internal sensor, no warning bells, and no internal “mom” who can give me the “eye” from across the room to signal me to stop, go forward, or turn left. I have no angel sitting on my shoulder, guiding me with gentle persuasion. I am clueless and guideless.
And if that were not bad enough, I also for some reason that has also eluded me for years, come off to some people as arrogant and self-congratulatory. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am my own harshest critic, in spite of (or perhaps because of) my lack of internal sensors. After any interview, I often re-play the entire thing, second-guessing every word, every gesture, every sigh, every ill-advised laugh or answer to a question. Once the hoped-for invitation to join the faculty does not come, then I launch myself into endless rounds of more second-guessing, followed by even harsher recriminations. It is agonizing. If I knew what I was talking about, I regret my own confidence, fearing it was interpreted as arrogance. If I talk about past successes, I review them with a harshly critical eye, chastising myself for presuming to pride. It seems, no matter how successful I have been in the past, if that phone call does not come, it all amounts to naught but pain, anguish, and intense disappointment.
Rationally, I know that hiring anyone on the basis of a couple of interviews is a crap-shoot, at best. Other people seem to have perfected the skill of misrepresenting themselves. The interviewers must be unable to see through practiced artifice. They may, in fact, make the worst possible choice, but be unaware of that fact for many months. And then, it seems, it is too late to correct their mistake. And of course, it is entirely possible that they hired exactly the right person, and that was not me.
It is also entirely possible that I was mistaken in my judgment of the job, the department, the school. I am always reminded of the cliché about being careful what you wish for since you might actually get it. It is possible that I could have been the wrong choice for them, or they could have been the wrong place for me, after all.
But it is also entirely possible, and highly probable, that I was the person who should have gotten the job. And it is that possibility—coupled with the heartfelt certainty that I am absolutely right, and I have lost out on yet another incredible opportunity because no one can see, or that I was unable yet again to convince the hiring committee of, the “real me”—that haunts me.
And so I remain where I am. In a job I got, most likely because, through a happy convergence of circumstances, I did not have to interview for it. I had the credentials and needed a job, and they needed to hire an astounding number of instructors at once, and could not afford the time it would take to interview large numbers of people the traditional way. Sometimes, I torture myself and read the biographies of the tenured and tenure-track professors that are posted on the department’s website, where they talk about their interests and their latest research project. I then think to myself, in my low-self-esteem moments, “Well, I guess I am right where I am supposed to be: in a low-paying, no-status, work-horse job I have to re-apply for year after year, with no guarantee of future employment, especially if my students suddenly decide to turn on me, since most of our jobs are significantly influenced by student evaluations.”
But in my heart of hearts—that same heart of hearts that tells me that I am great teacher and a good person—I know that I can do better, and that I deserve better. Apparently, though, what I am really unable to do is convince anyone else of that.
And so I remain in a job that barely pays the mortgage, does not allow for a second car, and that causes tense moments when the student loan payments are due. I continue to write papers and send them out, many being accepted for publication, just because that is positively thrilling to me. I do not, however, feel any pressure to do so, or pressure to be diligently revising my dissertation and trying to convince a publishing house to take a chance on me. I just write and publish because I like doing it. I do not have ideas for new book topics on my hard drive, or outlined chapters of those books, or whatever it is that publishing professors do. I have ideas for murder mysteries floating around in my grey matter, along with a script for an updated filmed version of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and there’s that unfinished Star Trek novel, too
I teach my classes and grade my papers. I do my committee work. I go to meetings, sometimes. I speak to the department chair casually, in the elevator or the main office. He, however, does not know me well enough to call me by the shortened version of my name that my friends and family call me—he uses my full name. I suppose I should be grateful that he even knows my name at all. I continue to get summer school assignments that help with the bills, and I keep getting re-hired. Yay. And my students love me. And I love them. Thanks be to god.
And so I remain.
toiling in an annually-renewed contingent position
at a Top-Tier R1 institution, year 10;
have stopped applying for other jobs.