Theses on Professionalization: Andrew Durdin

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In this series with the Bulletin, we have asked 21 early career scholars to weigh in on Russell McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization, first published in 2007. In his 21 theses, McCutcheon offers advice to young scholars entering (or soon to enter) the job market, addressing the all-to-important (but often overlooked) question of professionalization. Each of the contributors in this series has been asked to comment on a single thesis, addressing its contemporary relevance, and how it relates to their own experience moving forward in the academic world. For other posts in this series, see here

by Drew Durdin

Thesis 7: For some of those who will be judging candidates’ credentials to determine their admission to the profession, the reputation of the school from which they have earned their Ph.D. plays a significant role in assessment of applicants’ skills and future promise as colleagues. Although one’s alma mater does communicate with whom one has trained and what traditions of scholarship one may pursue, for yet others the reputation of candidates’ schools is secondary to the quality of their current research, the places where they have published their work, and the experience they have had in the classroom.

The academic job market is not a level playing field. This should not come as any surprise. But in my conversations and commiserations with other early-career scholars, I’ve frequently found that the full implications of this sentiment are rarely appreciated, nor are they taken as a potential point of empowerment to those facing the uphill battle for employment where the odds seem always stacked against them. In my view, embracing the fact of the uneven field and using it to adjust our expectations can help us avoid some of the negative dispositions that authors have raised in these posts during the past few weeks. It also frees us up to be strategic with those things we can control in potentially new and creative ways.

In thesis #7 McCutcheon has pointed us to two criteria on which candidates for academic jobs might be assessed: “some” will weight a candidate on the reputation of her institutional affiliation while “others” might find this secondary to the quality of her scholarly work. My almost automatic response to this duality is to claim that things are far more complicated: as written, thesis #7 is a false dichotomy. As Tara Baldrick-Morrone indicated in last week’s post, many factors are at play when considering an applicant for a particular position. Even as I’ve perused the first job postings of the season, I’m struck by the list of qualifications (preferred and essential) that departments claim are relevant in judging applicants. In addition to the obvious qualities such as possessing a PhD, submitting letters of recommendation, and having an “active” and “competitive” research agenda as well as teaching qualifications, most job postings also contain administrative and “catch-all” language that point to a general desire for a candidate willing to act as an overall team player, a “good” colleague to work with. These latter qualities are much more intangible and interpersonal, less able to be assessed on paper, and must be navigated “in the room,” i.e., in the interviews where both applicants and committee members can negotiate between explicit matters on the page and more implicit qualifications.

While a number of things can and likely do get factored into assessing candidates, in my experience—albeit limited—and based on my rather anecdotal and informal interactions with others on the job market, the two elements McCutcheon gives us here—institutional affiliation versus individual quality—often take on a specific relationship. Put plainly, the latter is often appealed to as a response to the frustration felt in relation to the former. In fact, these two criteria seem already morally coded. That is, it’s not really a choice among equals: the quality of a candidate’s work is almost intuitively preferable to said candidate’s institutional affiliation. We’re struck with a sense of injustice when we entertain the possibility that hiring committees might select job candidates based solely—or mostly—on the prestige of their degree. After all the years of work and financial hardship in graduate school, it is a disquieting thought that it all might come down to a question of affiliation. This disquiet is not helped by recent studies (which perhaps reinforce our intuitions) that show a small coterie of elite academic programs perpetuate themselves through hiring practices in a closed network. [1]

By contrast, we often hope that solid scholarly work will somehow allow us to punch through the inequalities of our field and the academy in general—that by sheer effort alone, we’ll be able to transcend the disproportionate accumulations of social capital and end up being the exception to the bleak landscape testified to in article after article floating across our social media feeds. But merit—as a possible response to the inherent unevenness of the job market—simply defers the issue. In appealing to merit, we’re acting as though long-entrenched status hierarchies don’t exist or don’t matter—at least not to “us.” To plow ahead in a game rigged in advance, all the while acting as though this isn’t the case, leads to burnout, frustration, and resentment. It results in the loss of confidence or the compulsive need to “do more,” as other contributors have touched on in past weeks. To paraphrase a sentiment from Slavoj Žižek: many of us are fetishists in practice but not in theory when it comes to the job market. We know the general state of the academic job market—we’ve read the stats on the shrinking number of tenure positions, the indentured servitude of adjuncting, and the closing of religious studies departments as STEM fields reign supreme. And we know that the whole idea of meritocratic “bootstraps” is a myth often perpetuated by the most privileged. Yet, for all this, our own particular situation often remains mystified, and a latent conception of meritocracy lingers. We are perfectly content to commiserate over the abysmal state of the job market, in what can only be understood as the antecedent to a future explanation of why we never made it or the beginnings of a triumph narrative, in which we succeeded against all odds (likely because of the quality of our work, not the prestige of our degree). Either way, we are perpetuating the idea that if one works hard enough and produces quality scholarship then one might breakthrough the entrenched hierarchies in our field and beat the house at its own game.

Of course this is not a call to give up and go get a “real job,” nor is it to say that we shouldn’t strive to produce quality scholarship or present ourselves as well-rounded applicants. On the contrary, as Mike Altman put so nicely in a comment a few weeks back, we should embrace job market nihilism. We should put off notions that one can “game” the system and spend our energy instead on what we might have some control over. Acknowledging that the game is rigged might open us up to playing the game more skillfully and strategically and to resist hanging our potential success on any one factor, whether it’s the reputation of our program or the quality of our work. We should accept that, despite our best efforts, we can’t know or control most aspects of the job search in advance. Based on what we can know—through whatever channels and connections—of the preferences and priorities of those “some” and “others” who here represent the judges and gatekeepers of vocational academic work, we should carefully craft our self-representation and qualities for each application and interview, tailoring ourselves as best we can to each specific imagined audience who will read our application, conduct our interviews, and, with any luck, eventually become our colleagues.

[1] https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/02/13/study-suggests-insular-faculty-hiring-practices-elite-departments. While Religious Studies departments have not been included in these studies, a quick look at the websites of some “top” schools in our field and the degree-granting institutions of their faculty members suggests a provisional pattern.

Andrew Durdin is a PhD candidate in History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His research focuses on Roman religion, magic and religion in the Roman Empire, and scholarly historiography of ancient Mediterranean religions. His dissertation offers a critical redescription of certain evidences often taken as “magical” or as attesting to a strong concept of magic in the late Roman republic and early principate.

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