I find myself quite torn about this column. In it, an academic job candidate talks about the importance of considering quality of life in applying for academic jobs, by detailing her own job interview in a part of the country in which she realized she could never live. That basic message - think about whether you could live in the town where the job is located - is an important one, and everybody has their own dealbreakers. I sincerely applaud people who know themselves well enough to know what kinds of compromises they are and aren't willing to make, and I believe that the lack of choice about where to live is one of the major evils of academic life. No one should have to live somewhere fundamentally abhorrent to them.
But deal god, couldn't the author have managed to sound less condescending and elitist about it?? And, frankly, provincial?
A few examples:
Can a Ph.D. who wears perfume made by an obscure order of French monks find happiness working in a town where everyone buys their clothes at the Farm King?...
On the train, I was first struck by the differences between what I had been told about the train ride and its reality. The department chair had assured me that the train would be a great experience, with a lovely dining car, reminiscent of the old days of railroad travel when shiny-uniformed porters brought out plates of chicken cordon bleu and rice pilaf to suave and sophisticated world travelers. That, he claimed, made the four-hour train ride bearable. But I don't remember Cary Grant ever having to choose between a microwaved hot dog or hamburger, begrudgingly handed over by a miserable guy complaining behind a stainless-steel counter.
The people on the train, with the exception of the hot-dog guy, were friendly and open. But they did make me doubt all the criticisms I have had of the way rural Americans are depicted in culturally elitist Hollywood movies. Turns out those movies have often done a fairly accurate job. I overheard the sad story of how one young man's dreams of pop stardom were dashed when he failed to break the top 23 in the "American Idol" tryouts and was now on his way home to live the rest of his life in frustrated obscurity. I also listened to a chat about how much better life was in the town I was traveling to now that the new Walmart had opened....
My first meeting was an 8 a.m. breakfast with members of the department's faculty. After a few pleasantries, one of the faculty members turned to me and asked, "Tell me, why didn't the Nazis destroy the Jewish cemeteries and synagogues in Krakow?"
And we were off! The interview had begun. It was clear to me that those people were really isolated from civilization out there, because no civilized people I knew asked questions about genocide before 9 a.m.—over bacon, no less.
[Um, has this person never been on an on-campus interview? That's what they do - interview you. Over meals. Including breakfast.]
During my professional lecture about my research, the questions were, as is usually the case in job interviews, more about the work of the questioner than about my scholarship: "Why didn't you write about labor union activity in public?" Well, I didn't write about labor unions because the book is about hippies and festivity, not labor unions. It's a monograph, not an encyclopedia. "How did the theories of Bakhtin influence the hippies?" Most 17-year-old hippies had never even heard of Bakhtin, let alone read his theories. Come on, people. This is my research—not yours. Stop trying to show off to your colleagues.
Then I was taken to dinner, where everyone was tired, and the conversation felt very insidery—jokes between friends, etc. I felt isolated and awkward, and couldn't wait to get back to my room. Actually, I couldn't wait to get back home. The next morning, my alarm failed to go off, and I was left with six minutes to get dressed and out the door for the train. I made it, got through the airport and to the plane, and as soon as I touched ground I raced toward civilization for some sushi—the cultural version of electroshock therapy.
These latter three examples, actually - they annoy me because they have nothing to do with the cultural sophistication of the town. They're about the nature of the interview itself, and sound exactly like the kinds of experiences I've had at job interviews across the country. Just because you didn't like the way the department conducted the interview, doesn't mean that the department is full of hicks.
I don't know. On the one hand, I do not want to replicate those people telling grad students/junior faculty that if they want a job in academia they have to SACRIFICE, and be willing to live ANYWHERE, dammit, because I hate that attitude. But on the other hand, yeah, if you want a job in academia you often have to move somewhere it wasn't your first choice to live. There's nothing wrong with deciding NOT to do that, but there's also nothing wrong with deciding TO do that, either. I have a dear pair of friends who live in a state extremely uncongenial to them in terms of politics and weather, because it was the only place they could both find jobs, and he (especially) really really really really REALLY wanted an academic job. They have adjusted and created a pretty happy life for themselves.
I'm not saying that the author of the Chronicle column would have ultimately been happy working at the university she describes - clearly she wouldn't. I just think there has to be a way to get across the message that considering quality of life is important, without putting down the people who do live (and happily!) in the places you don't want to be.
(For the shorter version of this post, see this tweet! I don't know the tweeter, just appreciated the sentiment.)