Thursday, October 30, 2014

Thinking Like the Plague

The Ebola panic in the American media seems uncannily familiar to me, in the worst possible way. Anyone who studies Renaissance literature for a living has read many accounts of terrible epidemics, and many stories of epidemic hysteria. (In fact, some people have written learned and illuminating books about literary responses to the plague; I can't pretend to be one of them.) Smallpox is a terrible affliction. Bubonic plague is worse. But human responses to those diseases often made them more dangerous, just as today's hysteria about Ebola threatens to make Ebola more dangerous.Of course, dangerous diseases require precautions. But there is a panicked mindset that poses as a defense against the plague but makes it works. It is plaguethink: the plague's herald and accomplice. Even when the disease itself is controllable, plaguethink can lay entire communities to waste.

Plaguethink has two basic precepts:

1. A conviction that nothing can be done to stop the disease.

2. The idea that you can save yourself by abandoning the sick.

From those two ideas often come two emotional responses:

3. A phobic horror of the infected, leading to stigmatization and poor treatment.

and, not often but not always:

4. A tendency to interpret the disease as a carrier of religious or moral meaning.

The important thing to remember is that none of these ideas has EVER been true. There has NEVER been a completely unstoppable and invincible disease. If there had been, we would not be here. There have been terrible, terrible diseases. But the "superbug" is a fantasy. Even before modern medicine was developed (and believe me, European Renaissance medicine could be spectacularly ineffective), there was NEVER been a disease where there was absolutely nothing you could do.

An epidemiologist once told me that most bubonic plague patients were not contagious. (The minority who were contagious were very contagious, but most sufferers were basically not contagious at all.) And most of those people would have recovered and lived if they just got basic nursing care, by which I mean basic 14th-century nursing care: someone to give them food and water and occasionally change their sheets. For most people that didn't happen because people decided, incorrectly, that fighting the disease was hopeless and that abandoning the sick is the way to safety.

Now, the abandon-the-sick idea perverts a common-sense idea (you need to take steps to avoid contagion) into something inhumane and destructive. "Try not to catch the disease" is reasonable. "Save yourself and let the sick die" is something else entirely. Leaving the sick to die alone, and running out of town to keep yourself safe, is unnecessary and unhelpful.

It is not even a plan. "Just don't get it yourself" is not a plan, and it will not keep you safe. It leaves the disease unfought, which keeps the disease alive and dangerous. Letting the disease flourish but hoping it stays away from you will NOT work over time. You cannot keep out disease with a wall, or a moat, or a retreat to your country house, or with a border. The disease will get around all of that sooner or later. You cannot keep yourself safe by sacrificing other people to the illness. The outbreak itself has to be defeated, or no one is safe.

I mean, Elizabeth I, who theoretically owned everything she saw unless she went to the beach, actually came down with smallpox. (Her doctors nursed her through it, and she rode it out.) even the most powerful person in the country could not throw up real barriers against contagion.

During outbreaks of bubonic plague, people would leave the sick to die alone in their houses, and abandon that house, or that neighborhood, or simply flee town. What do you think that did? It left the disease alive and kicking, ready for the country-house crowd when they got back. And, well, that epidemic was spread by rats. Deserted neighborhoods full of dead bodies didn't make that problem any better. Plaguethink helped the disease spread. It always has.

During the 1980s, you could hear people talk about AIDS with the same terrified plaguethink. Put all of the infected on an island somewhere! That would be as pointless as it would have been inhumane, but the people who said those crazy things weren't thinking of fighting the disease. They were offering it a sacrifice to appease it.

Today, the voices of plaguethink are roaring on the media every day. Travel ban! Stop the flights! But those measures are counterproductive. They will not stop Ebola. They will let it plague us. You cannot keep out a sub-cellular organism with airport screenings. Of course you can't.

If we actually want to be safe from Ebola, we have to stop the outbreak in West Africa. Letting the outbreak flourish, because we've deluded ourselves that it's hopeless to fight it, will let it remain a danger forever. And the idea that we can't fight the outbreak, which people in the media take for granted, is an obvious lie. Nigeria has contained the outbreak in Nigeria. It can be done. And in this country it really is under control, no matter how it's being spun. The epidemiological forest fire in Liberia needs to be extinguished, and that will require outside help from the United States and Europe. But it can be done, and has to be. Letting Ebola run amok in Western Africa and trying to keep it out of this country is hopeless, especially when you define "keeping it out" as zero cases a year. You wouldn't build a fire-break to keepmamwildfire away from your house but not have anyone fight the wildfire. That. Would eventually fail. So the travel ban, and the stigmatization of health workers who fight Ebola in Africa and come home, is the worst possible thing. It is the 21st-century equivalent of letting rats feed on dead plague victims. 

Worst of all is the stigmatization, the ritual humiliation, of health workers who have put themselves at risk. It is a disgraceful instance of brave and mature people being attacked by the childish and terrified. Those health workers are not a danger. They are our best hope. "Quarantining" them in medical tents without a toilet or shower makes no medical sense. (Ebola spreads through body fluids, jerks: anyone who might be carrying it shouldn't be kept away from a toilet.) Worse, it actively takes the disease's side against the health care workers. It is a declaration of unthinking allegiance to the plague.

Ebola needs to be fought. But it is not a terrible god. It is a pest. It cannot be appeased; it can only be fed and allowed to flourish. It is not a messenger of divine or immanent truth. Itis a sub-cellular parasite, a strand of DNA with an adjustment problem. It is not a great danger to the United States. But plaguethink could make it one.

Cross-posted from dagblog

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