the job market as individualism

Ever since I was little, my body has refused to pay attention to my brain’s stress responses—or, rather, lack thereof. In high school, for example, I was a nationally recognized public speaker. I spent my weekends giving at least three speeches, often more, and usually extemporaneously. Any public speaking anxiety I had had been beaten out of me through exposure therapy. And yet, even though I would walk into a room and feel calm mentally, I would find myself short of breath at least once during every speech. My brain was in one place; my body, another.

On the job market, this disjuncture is back. Mentally, I feel fine. I am quite at peace with the fact that I may not land an academic job, despite wanting one. I am not worried about being employed at this point next year, even if it is not in a job that I like. (I have an immense amount of privilege that lets me feel this way.) I have had templates of all of my job materials complete since early July. I have a spreadsheet of deadlines and a network of folders to keep myself organized. My recommenders have finished their letters. (Thank you all kindly!)

And yet: I am not sleeping. And yet: I sit down to tailor a cover letter and feel a tightness below my sternum. It’s started popping, which despite all of my weightlifting has never occurred before. Typically, working out is my main source of physical stress relief, and though the pandemic has made that more difficult, I’m making a point of doing more now than I have at any point since the beginning of quarantine (though still less than I did in the Before Times). It takes the edge off for a few hours, and then my body betrays me again, wasps starting to stir in my stomach.

The job market is both a lonely exercise and a selfish one. Here is what I mean: I am very good at working on co-authored papers or lesson plans or service projects. I enjoy doing things that benefit other people, and I like having others count on me. I am less good at working on things that only benefit me. The job market is entirely self-serving, in that it matters for no one else if I get a job or not.* This is compounded by the dissertation, another self-serving project and the other main demand on my time right now. All in all, these are tasks that may bring me joy in the future, in that they could land me a career where I can serve others, but that do not spark joy now.

My very wise friend Kaden Paulson-Smith (who is also on the job market! they are awesome! hire them!) pointed out another layer, which is that job market success seems to rely on pitching ourselves as individual scholars, rather than as a part of the community that made us or as newcomers standing on the shoulders of giants. Is it dishonest if everyone knows you’re doing it? One faculty member who offered feedback on my materials said I should not write “[coauthor] and I did XYZ” but rather rephrase the sentence such that I alone become the subject of the sentence, while still acknowledging that the project is coauthored. I understand the rhetorical move, and it also feels like claiming ownership of something that is not entirely mine. It feels like reproducing dynamics where senior (white, male) scholars claim sole or primary ownership of work done primarily by (non-white, non-male) scholars, even though I am neither senior nor male. Regardless, presented this way, I would hate to be my coauthor.

I’ve written before at length about community, how academia is one despite its best efforts, and the myriad ways individualism rules this profession even as research collaboration becomes the norm. So I’m not surprised that this bit of the job is also constructed as me, myself, and no one else. I’m not surprised my body resists, even as I rationalize in my brain.

I have concocted a tiny, nigh unnoticeable act of rebellion: I have moved the “Teaching” section of my CV up in the document, underneath “Publications,” which is far higher than one is typically told it should go. To me, this means: I have maybe helped a few students learn a few things. I have tried. That is the crux of the academic community—the classroom, where we share our experiences and reach new insights together, both as student and as teacher. That is the crux of me.

*Department rankings, inflated by graduates who get subjectively “prestigious” jobs, are not a cause I care an iota about serving.

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