Dissertation Progress: Week of September 7th

Last week(s) I did lots of work, and none of it was my dissertation.

I’ve been doing a lot of professional development lately, since there’s currently no job market to speak of in Academia. I’ve had trouble explaining this to people who are not academics, since they assume that the move online during the pandemic has decreased costs for universities and increased demand for instructors. While that’s technically true, universities don’t primarily think of themselves as educational institutions anymore, and most of their money does not go to anything teaching-related. As a result, the pandemic has led to massive austerity measures at universities, mostly taken out on teaching faculty and staff. Meanwhile, I’m on the job market this year (that’s academic speak meaning I’m looking for a job, since academic jobs take a full year to apply for).

I’ve spent some of the last couple of weeks working on applications for post docs, since it seems like those still exist for the most part. My theory is that professorships are being canceled due to budget cuts, but post docs are typically funded through endowments and so are largely safe for the time being. Applications all take a while, but once you understand the format, they’re not that difficult. Unlike a corporate job, where the application process is more weighted towards interviews and practical tests, academic jobs have a very high cost of entry to discourage people from applying. Every job/fellowship has slightly different requirements that force applicants to rework their materials for each one. While our CVs tend to remain the same, everything else changes. All jobs/fellowships want to see an explanation of your teaching and research, plus a writing sample. But some want full statements on teaching and research, some only want one and the other should just be mentioned in your cover letter, and all have different page limits. Sometimes they want a full teaching portfolio (which includes samples of your teaching materials and course evaluations) and sometimes they want you to condense all the information in your portfolio into a single paragraph. All of these instructions are typically very brief and vague, so there’s a lot of time spent trying to decipher the language of the advertisement. The result of all of this is that a single job application takes many hours.

But professionalization is way more than just applications. I’ve attended a couple of seminars on applying to academic and non-academic jobs in the past few weeks, and these have largely been unhelpful. The academic world is simply unprepared to advise recent graduates for a nonexistent job market. No one has experience in this, and so all their usual advice no longer applies. The main suggested career path in the non-academic (alt-ac) seminar was publishing. Ha. In addition to these I’ve also been working on my own writing outside of my dissertation. I’ve recently found two different collected volumes calling for papers that speak to the intersection of medieval history and pop culture, which is very much my jam. This kind of writing isn’t a distraction from my other work, because I look at it as an opportunity to develop the kind of writing I do on this blog under the supervision of an editor. The blog helps me develop tone and style for a general audience, but I still need to figure out how to apply academic rigor to subjects that are hard to pin down. There’s a mysterious sweet spot of history that passes academic muster but is readable (and interesting!) by the general public. That’s what I’m trying to discover. And I was reminded of the stakes this week after reading a scathing takedown of a scholar whose trade book did not impress his colleagues. Commercial writing is seen as selling out in the academic world – which is a real shame, because that’s how we actually get people to read our work. Academics like to think they are underground punk rockers who could never get a record deal and instead have to share their music on bootleg cassettes. Except in academia, the bootleg cassettes are also put out by record companies, and they cost five times as much as an LP. This is all to say that I’m working on two articles that are extensions of things I’ve written about on this blog.

Otherwise, my time has been dominated by the horrendous weather conditions of the Bay Area and staying inside with two toddlers. But I’m hoping to go back to dissertation work this week. I need to add citations to Chapter 4 (just a few), and spend some significant time putting together appendices. I’d like to send out a draft soon.