Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Career Advice from Actors to Academics

It's that cruelest of seasons again for young scholars: job search season. In an annual fall ritual I've discussed in previous years, the list of jobs for new professors beginning next fall has recently been published, and people who want those jobs are now laboring over complicated job applications. As has been the case for many years, and especially since the Great Recession began, there are far fewer jobs than there are talented and qualified applicants. A job in the humanities typically gets more than a hundred or two hundred applications (sometimes more than three or four hundred), while there are only a few dozen job openings across the country in an individual's field. (If I were starting out looking for my first teaching job today, there would be only 22 jobs I could apply to in the US; by the end of November that number might swell to 30.) What this means is that no one, no matter how gifted and deserving, gets an assistant professorship without a whole lot of good luck. Talent isn't enough. Hard work isn't enough. Merit isn't enough. There are many, many more talented, hard-working and meritorious people than there are jobs. You have to be talented AND hard-working AND lucky. In other words, getting a job in the academy has become like getting a job in the theater, and it needs to be approached in the same way.

The best book of career advice I've ever read, hands down, is Robert Cohen's classic Acting Professionally, which I first read in my teens. I still have a copy, because some of its advice it turns out to be applicable to things outside acting. It's especially relevant to the strange little world of academia, which is like the strange world of the theater in that work is incredibly scarce, rejection is pervasive, and success or failure can feel like a judgment of you as a person. And much of the book is devoted to explaining how terribly hard it is, very much in the manner of today's "don't go to grad school unless you know the facts" talk in a faculty office. (In the edition I read in the 1980s, Cohen cautions aspiring actors that they might literally be one of a hundred people up for a single acting job. Oh, Bob. If only it were that easy.) Somewhere along the line, teaching college turned into an arts job, like acting or sculpting. That's not good, but for now it's the reality, and it has to be dealt with.

So, with the indulgence of my fellow Dagbloggers, I'd like to devote this post (and maybe two or three more) to sharing Cohen's lessons with younger academics.

The first thing to make clear is that advice is not enough. You can get the best advice possible, and follow it, and still not get a job. In this way, being an academic job-seeker is exactly like being an actor. Good advice is not always enough, because doing everything right is not always enough. Some career advice to academic job-seekers is offered, or taken, in the spirit of telling job-seekers that they will get a job if they do the right things; but there's no way to promise that. Advice isn't sufficient, but it's still necessary. It keeps you from taking yourself out of the running.
If you want to be in movies, you basically have to move to Los Angeles, where the casting happens. Moving to LA won't get you a job in movies; far from it. But if you don't move to LA, you won't have a Hollywood career. If you don't move to New York, you won't be on Broadway. If you want to be a working actor, you need a set of recent, professional headshots. The best set of headshots in the world won't get you work on its own. But not having those photos to give casting directors will ENSURE that you don't get work. So will getting amateur headshots that one of your friends took with a smartphone, or using old photos that show you with a hairline or waistline that you haven't had for five years. In the same way, the most immaculately prepared job materials won't get you a job, but careless or unprofessional job materials will make sure that you never get one. Having an article, or even two articles, accepted for publication in good journals won't guarantee you a job, because most applicants for most jobs will also have a publication or two. But if all the serious applicants for a job have those publications and you don't, you are not a serious applicant for that job. 

The most important piece of advice Cohen gives, which has stayed with me for decades, is this:

Children are rewarded for being good. Adults are rewarded for being useful.

Children are (or should be) rewarded because they deserve rewards. Learn your algebra, get your A. But adults are hired because they are useful to their employers. The question is not what the job-seeker deserves. It is what the employer needs. Abstract merit is less important than how an applicant fits the needs of a particular job. For "children" we could read "students" and "adults" we could read "professionals." What you do as a student is about you. What other people hire you to do is ultimately about them.

If the two best actors who show up at an audition are both competing for the same role, only one of those actors is likely to get hired, because they can't necessarily fit other parts. Say three brilliant twenty-something actresses all try out for the romantic lead, and any one of them would be great. In fact, all three are better actors, in terms of overall talent and skill, than anyone who tries out for any of the other roles. You can't cast the runner-up for the female romantic lead as the seventy-year-old grandfather, even if she's a much "better" actor than all of the older men who've auditioned. The producers will cast the best grandfather-type as the grandfather, and the best ingenue as the ingenue. Likewise, if three brilliant old stage veterans turn up to read for the grandfather, and the best actress reading for the ingenue role is just okay, the just-okay actress will get hired and two of the silver-haired virtuosos won't. The actors who don't get hired deserve jobs. The show just can't use them.

In the same way, there are brilliant character actors who make a living as supporting players in big Hollywood movies. (And there are many other brilliant character actors who don't make a living at all.) You can often see those brilliant actors playing opposite leading actors who are less talented .... sometimes much less talented. The actor playing the villain or the sidekick may be a far better actor, as an actor, than the leading man. But the film would almost certainly be a flop if the character actor were put in the lead. ("Stanley Tucci is ... Batman.") Yes, there are always exception. But they're exceptions. And while I might pay good money to see Nathan Lane as The Mighty Thor, most people wouldn't. Some actors are more useful in supporting roles. Others are playing the lead role or not getting a part at all.

In the same way, academic jobs are about a variety of different needs, and something that helps your chances for one job might hurt your chances for another. This is not because those things are good or bad, but because they make you more or less useful for that specific job. Jobs require different balances of teaching and research. They require different kinds of teaching. Some jobs want to hire someone to cover an entire specialty by her- or himself, and prize breadth. Some are hiring someone to join an existing group of specialists, and may be looking for people who complement the existing faculty members, or for people who would be especially good collaborators with them. (Some departments want the new person to bring something new to the table. Some are trying to build up a critical mass of people doing overlapping work.) And here's the thing: all of these questions can work for or against you no matter what you do. Teaching lots of beginning classes might help you get a job where you'll teach those classes, but not to get a job where you'd only teach advanced courses. Doing research that overlaps a potential colleagues can sink your application ("Do we need another person doing Shakespeare and Renaissance science?") or move it to the top of the pile ("We want to become a center for studying Renaissance literature and science."). This is about their needs, not your merit.

Many small liberal-arts colleges favor applicants who went to small liberal-arts colleges themselves. The thinking is that alumni of small colleges have a feel for the kind of community experience that those schools work to provide, and that it sometimes takes people who were undergrads at big research universities a longer time to grasp what a place like Williams or Carleton is about. They don't think that people who went to small colleges are better or smarter than people who went to big universities. Arguing that Yale is harder to get into than Williams is beside the point. Small-college graduates aren't necessarily better than Ivy League graduates, but they bring something to the table that hiring committees see as useful.

So what to do with this lesson? Two things. The first is only psychological, but it's crucial: do NOT read the academic job market as a reflection of your professional worth. It is not that. It cannot be that. It does not judge your merit, but only your usefulness, and your usefulness to any particular employer is highly circumstantial.

When hiring committees talk about "fit" this is what they mean: your usefulness within the idiosyncratic terms of a given job. Some job seekers have taken a great dislike to the term "fit," which they see as not helpful. But what "fit" means is: it's not about you. Instead of being angry with that, take it as permission not to beat yourself up.

The second application of the rewarded-for-being-useful lesson is to the job market itself. As far as is within your power, you should craft your job materials to appeal to the demands of the particular job. And as far as is within your power, you should direct your professional energies toward the activities that qualify you for the kind of job you want.

There are limits to this. You should never say explicitly, "I think I meet your needs in X and Y way." They know their needs better than you do, and don't need to be told. And, as Flavia points out, the academic job letter is a fairly constrained genre whose limits you should definitely not break. But what you emphasize should generally be things that suit you for THAT job. If you are applying for a job teaching English literature at a place where you won't be expected to teach composition, that one 200-level literature section you once taught is at least as important as the fifteen sections of composition you've taught over the past four years. If you're applying for a job where half your teaching load would be comp, you should give your composition experience more play. If you were an actor going on auditions, you'd bring a prepared monologue that fit your skills, but also fit the part you were auditioning for. If you're auditioning for the funny best friend in a Wendy Wasserstein play, you don't give them your all-time-most-favorite monologue from Miss Julie. You don't give them a Neil Simon monologue if you're auditioning for Iago. Apply to the job they're offering.

In the longer term, if you want to get a certain kind of job, you should work to qualify yourself for those jobs in specific ways. This is easier said than done early in your career, when you don't necessarily get to choose teaching assignments and when you need to keep the wolf from the door. And qualifying for a job that already has a flood of qualified and over-qualified applicants doesn't guarantee you that job. It just allows you to get your application in past the first round of review, so that luck, fit, and other unpredictable forces can come into play. (If you can act but you can't sing or dance, no amount of luck will get you cast in a musical. If you're a great teacher with no publications, no amount of luck will get you a job at a research university.)

If you've taught a lot of intro-level courses, look for a chance to teach a more advanced class. That is a meaningful improvement to your CV. If you want a job in a department with a doctoral program, you should try to publish something in one of the top journals in your subfield; those departments will eventually evaluate you on your scholarly reputation as well as your productivity, so you need to show the hiring committee that you can publish in the influential, highly competitive venues. For those schools two or three things published in less selective journals do not add up to one article published in a flagship. If you'd be happier with a job where research is a smaller part of the mix, and where your scholarship will be counted more quantitatively, then two articles add up to more than one fancy article. The strategy there would be to focus on places where you can have your article accepted more quickly, and journals with higher acceptance rates. None of this guarantees you anything. (It goes both ways; if the stress of submitting to a journal with a tiny acceptance rate and inscrutable requests for revision makes you too crazy, then a research-intensive job will also bring miserable stress.) None of these things are easy to do. And none guarantee you anything. But you are not completely powerless. You have useful skills, and there are ways to increase your odds.

 cross-posted from, and comments welcome at, Dagblog.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Stop Worrying About Ebola

Hi. I'm at Logan Airport in Boston. Unfortunately, CNN is on in the departure lounge. They are raving (indeed, nearly foaming at the mouth) about Ebola. And it seems, according to CNN, that the CDC has quarantined a plane from Liberia where some passengers have fallen ill. They have quarantined that plane here at, well, Boston's Logan Airport.

Should you be worried about Ebola? Let's put it this way: should I be worried about Ebola. No, and no. 

There may be active patients elsewhere in the airport where I am sitting. I am in no danger. And unless you're actively nursing an infected victim, neither are you.

Now, STOP WORRYING ABOUT EBOLA. Seriously. Worry about texting and driving, because that is much more likely to kill you. Ebola is a genuine medical problem and it requires a response, but people sitting safely in the United States should not be freaking out about it. Really. Really, really.

This has been a message from the real world, Boston Logan Airport division. Thanks.

Cross-posted from Dagblog

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Who Lost Scotland?

Today Scotland votes on independence: a fifty-fifty referendum on leaving the United Kingdom. It's gone from a long shot to a statistical dead heat, and nobody can say for sure how the vote will go. But what's certain is that Scotland's old relationship with the rest of Britain is finished. The Scottish independence movement will not just go away if they come up a couple percent short; they're never going to give up now that they've gotten this close. And if a united United Kingdom squeaks by, Scotland will expect to be given much more autonomy than it's had so far. In fact, this week the leaders of all three major parties have had to promise them that autonomy. So no matter how the vote goes, it's fair to say that David Cameron and his Conservative Party have managed to lose Scotland. They should pay a price for that.

The format of the vote is Cameron's fault. Cameron insisted that the most popular middle-ground option, so-called "max devo" or maximum devolution, which would have kept Scotland inside the United Kingdom but given it more power over its own affairs, be kept OFF the ballot. He made sure that it was an all-or-nothing vote: accept the status quo or leave the nation entirely.

I'm sure Cameron viewed this as masterful strategy: getting what he wanted by allowing no other workable option. You can choose between having it David Cameron's way and having this delicious shit sandwich. But it's backfired. Given a choice between a radical break and Cameron's status quo, many Scots would clearly prefer a radical break. Some of the most persuasive arguments I've heard  for a "Yes" vote on independence have been from people who said that what they really wanted was max devo, and that they were given no choice.

Pro tip to David Cameron: when people would rather eat a shit sandwich than spend time in your company, you're in no position to play the tough guy.

Now, of course, the danger of secession is so high that Cameron has had to troop up to Scotland with the Labour and Liberal party leaders and promise something close to max devo anyway. But many Yes voters hear that as an empty promise. For good reason, too: there are no specifics about what these "new powers for Scotland" would mean, and it's a promise to do something the voters want if the voters agree to give up all their leverage first. A promise like that isn't worth the paper it's not written on.

On the other hand, if No squeaks by, Cameron is in the position of having more or less promised to give Scotland the thing that he didn't want to give them and that he made sure was not on the ballot. So instead of exactly what he wants or an unpalatable alternative, he now faces a choice between exactly what he doesn't want and an unpalatable alternative. It's a kind of strategic masterpiece, carefully orchestrating his own defeat. It's a shit sandwich David Cameron prepared for himself, with his own two hands.

Now, most of the Scottish voters are far to Cameron's left, and he may think his Conservatives will gain politically if a whole region of Labour voters leave the country. But that's almost the definition of short-sightedness, and Conservatives who collude, even indirectly, in the breakup of the United Kingdom have failed at everything their party stands for. No one will admire a Conservative Party that allowed the dissolution of Great Britain. How could they? Churchill famously said that he hadn't become Prime Minister to preside over the dissolution of the British Empire. David Cameron now risks being the Tory MP who presided over the dissolution of Britain itself.

I'll admit that in my heart I'm hoping for a No, and a continued Great Britain. That's not because I'm a great Anglophile. (I'm from Boston, after all, where declaring independence from Britain is considered a heroic tradition.) But history, as I best understand it, suggests that Scotland will be dominated by its larger, wealthier southern neighbor no matter what, simply because that neighbor is larger and wealthier. Union, on balance, probably allows Scotland better terms in that relationship.

Remember how England took over Scotland: the King of Scotland inherited the English throne. After many decades of anxiety that the King of England would somehow get the Scottish throne and take over the country, the reverse happened. The King of Scotland took over England, and that ultimately put Scotland under England's power. For the last four hundred and eleven years, captive England has led conquering Scotland in chains, because the fundamental power difference is about things that no treaty can change. It's political gravity: the smaller country falls into the larger one's orbit. That underlying fact won't change with today's vote. But the strength of England's hold on Scotland will, win or lose.

cross-posted at Dagblog


Thursday, September 11, 2014

Obama's Mission

Barack Obama was elected because the American people were tired of being bogged down in unwinnable foreign wars. He was elected because a majority of American voters had come to view the Iraq war as a mistake. This is a basic, bottom-line political fact. Therefore, it is not (and cannot be) Official Beltway Wisdom.

Obama also had a mandate to save the country after the economic crash. And he had some mandate to fix health care, which he had campaigned on doing, although this was not nearly as important as he thought. A lot of Obama's early political problems can be ascribed to the fact that he overestimated how much the country cared about health care and underestimated how much the country cared about financial reform and getting the troops home from Iraq. He would have been better served with bolder steps on the economy and a quicker timetable to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan. But even when he has misunderstood the voters' exact priorities at a particular moment, the voters' priorities have been real.

President Obama's address to the nation Wednesday night shows that he still remembers his mission. We're going into Syria to fight ISIS, but only with an air campaign and not with ground troops. Obama was immediately criticized by various talking heads and political opponents (in fact, was criticized even sooner than immediately, because the complaining started in advance of the speech) that Obama ought to commit ground troops, or not rule out committing ground troops, right away. They complained that Obama needs to be Serious, which means putting American soldiers and Marines in harm's way. But the American people made Barack Obama President specifically so he would not send troops to this kind of war. He is carrying out the mission we gave him.

There's been a lot of criticism in Washington about Obama's strategic maxim "Don't do stupid stuff." Hillary Clinton, who would be President if she had not voted to let George W. Bush do stupid stuff, has joined the criticism. But all this wise Washingtonians miss the basic fact. Obama was elected to keep the country from doing stupid stuff. And most of what passes for strategic wisdom in Washington these days is pretty stupid.

Committing ground troops into Syria is stupid. It is not even remotely a strategy. Sending our troops into a war zone with no plan for getting them out, or even a picture of what victory would look like, is not strategy but stupidity. And we've already lost too many American lives to stupidity like that.

People who want to invade Syria argue that supporting the moderate rebels is not enough, because the moderate Syrian rebels are not strong enough to win. Let me point out that if there is no existing force on the ground in Syria strong enough to beat ISIS even with our air support, then there is no force on the ground for us to hand Syria over to when our troops leave. It is the same problem as Iraq and Afghanistan. Going in with ground troops means going into a situation that will collapse again shortly after our ground troops leave. Staying in Syria until Syria is stabilized means occupying Syria forever.

If we don't have an ally that can win without our ground troops, then we don't have an exit strategy for our ground troops. Don't do stupid stuff.

More importantly, don't get American soldiers and Marines killed doing stupid stuff. That is our Commander in Chief's mission. Let him do it.

cross-posted at Dagblog

Monday, August 18, 2014

Let's Review the Michael Brown Case

Let's review some basics from the Michael Brown case:

If a police office kills an unarmed person for jaywalking, that is murder. 

If a police officer kills an unarmed person for shoplifting five bucks' worth of cigars, that is murder. 

If a police officer kills an unarmed person who had smoked marijuana sometime that week, that is murder.

If a police officer kills an unarmed person who turns out to have wanted to be a rapper, that is murder.

If a police officer kills an unarmed person who has given the police officer some lip, that is murder.

If a police officer kills an unarmed person who is running away from him, that is murder. 

If a police officer kills an unarmed person who tried and failed to get the officer's gun before running away, that is murder.

I think you might detect a pattern here. The point is that killing someone who is not a clear (as in obvious) and present (meaning immediate) danger to someone else's life and safety is murder.

No one has suggested anything close to that kind of situation. The Ferguson Police Chief, who will clearly do everything and anything in his power to make excuses for his officer, has not been able to say that the shooter was in danger of his life. And there is no other excuse.

Can I imagine circumstances in which a police officer might use deadly force? You bet I can. But I don't even need to. I was raised by a police officer from a police family. I grew up around lots of police officers. And I do know a police officer who has killed someone in the line of duty (or rather, who was among the officers who killed someone in the line of duty; I don't think any of them want to know who fired the fatal bullet.) Why did they do it? Because a suspect was shooting at them and trying to kill them.

That is what what we're talking about. That is justification for using your weapon. None of this other stuff is even on the same planet as a real reason.

Almost every day we hear some fresh "revelation" about the young man killed by the police in Ferguson. Every day that revelation is offered up as if it changes the question of whether his murder was justified. And every day that revelation is utterly ridiculous. It says nothing about the real questions. It does say a lot about the moral compass of the person bringing it up.

If you're discussing an unarmed and completely defenseless man being shot to death and you bring up five dollars worth of stolen cigars, what you are saying is that you are too morally depraved, your moral judgment too impaired, to understand the value of human life. 

If you bring up marijuana residue or rap music, same thing. You have announced your idiocy and depravity for all to hear. And you have insulted your listeners by presuming that they too were moral idiots.

(Remember the Eighties, when you kept hearing stories about how young black gang members were so morally bankrupt that they would shoot someone to death for a pair of sneakers? Shooting someone for a hundred-dollar pair of shoes would mean your moral compass was broken. But what would shooting someone over five dollars of merchandise mean?)

Mike Brown was endowed by his creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. All three were taken away from him on the street, with no process of any kind, by a paid officer of the law. 

Michael Brown had a right to due process. He had a right to his life. There are no other questions. Whether or not you would have liked Mike Brown is not the issue. Whether or not you approved of Mike Brown is not the issue. Mike Brown's right to his life was not conditional on your approval, or mine, or any government authority's. He could only forfeit that right by endangering another life, and even then only while he posed an active danger. But Mike Brown was no danger to any living soul when he was killed. He had nothing in his hands but his own life. That was given to him by God. It was not for anyone else to take.

If you ask yourself whether or not Mike Brown deserved life, you are a lost soul. No one has set you to judge who should live and die. No one will and no one should. Mike Brown was a citizen like you, a human being like you. His rights are not subject to your little moods. If you will not defend his right to live, then you are no longer a citizen. I leave the question of your humanity to another judge.