Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Medievalists on the Market

I have a general rule of thumb (more honored in the breach than in the observance) of not linking to anonymous bloggers because so much anonymous commentary on the internet is so nasty. But Prof. Blogger is one of those exceptions because he doesn't ever use his anonymity to be a jerk, and also because in this recent post he discusses a really serious problem in academic job searches at most institutions.

Prof. Blogger points out that the odds are that no one on the search committees for the places he is interviewing is likely to be a medievalist: we medievalists "have to face hiring committees of well-intentioned, smart people who, despite their best efforts, are not really in any position to judge the merits of the various candidates." Thus:
This lack of informed input leads to some bizarre interviews in which, despite their best efforts, the hiring committee is unable to mask their ignorance of the medieval field. For example, in one interview, the Professor mentioned an article he had written that was, at that time, under review in Speculum. Speculum is the oldest, and arguably the most respectable, journal in the field. One of the reviewers asked, "Speculum? Is that a local journal?" In another interview, Prof. Blogger was asked who one of his letter-writers was -- and the person in question is arguably the most prominent medievalist working today... In most cases, being unable to weigh the merits of various publication venues, committees are left simply counting numbers of articles. Three articles in Pudunk Journal of Stuff by Local Yokels counts for more than one article in Really Highly Influential Journal in the Field.

This is a very serious problem in hiring, for which there are no obvious good fixes. Non-medievalists are appallingly ignorant of medieval studies. It's not just the lack of understanding about the prestige of the journal, but also a basic inability to understand what is important in contemporary scholarship that creates bizarre appointments (two very high-profile ones in the past couple of years, in my field, that are clearly the result of search committees having absolutely no clue that the people they were choosing were below mediocre, regardless of their academic pedigrees). For example, it seems to be very hard to convince most non-medievalists that identifying a significant source is a big deal but that writing, say, a postmodern analysis of Beowulf is, well, pretty tired and tedious at this stage of the game (the committee will have no idea that certain things have been done to death; to them, a post-modern analysis of Beowulf will communicate the idea that the candidate isn't old-fashioned, hidebound, boring, etc. -- all qualities which they project upon medievalists and are often just the opposite of the truth).

The British system, in contrast, at least rewards people who have done something that is major yet technical. Discover a source, propose a really important emendation, edit some previously neglected Anglo-Latin texts, and the British system will (generally) reward you with a solid position. Of course there is still tons of snobbery, and one's OxBridge undergraduate college probably has too much to do with your future (or at least that what my friends in the British system tell me). But because the British system uses outside electors, major figures on the field, to nominate jobs (at least for high-profile places like Oxford and Cambridge), the recommendations for hiring are strongly influenced by people who know what they are talking about. (This does not, by the way, eliminate politics, etc., but at least those elements of the hire are leavened with actual knowledge of the field).

I would support the creation of some kind of elector system to become one part of the American hiring system (though it's unlikely to happen without, say, some foundation spending a pile of money to set something up). It's also unlikely to ever come into being because for most departments, hiring a productive scholar in medieval studies is only one of the goals of the search. Most departments are searching for someone to fit in, someone who will not make them miserable for the next thirty years. They (consciously or unconsciously) want people like them (however defined). For some this can mean politics, for others academic pedigree (look at Princeton's English department: more than half have Princeton Ph.D.s), for others methodology (all the tedious, self-involved post-modernists Stanley Fish lured to Duke before he and they destroyed that English department). For us at Wheaton it would mean a strong focus on teaching and some kind of indication that the person wouldn't be planning to ditch us in five years.

Of course all of these things are very hard to divine through an on-paper application process in which every candidate appears to leap tall buildings in a single bound (recommendation letters are rife with hyperbole) and in which every sensible candidate will attempt to tailor his or her presentation to the specific insitution. So things like the source of the letters of recommendation (rather than the letters themselves) or the academic pedigree are used as proxies for other things that aren't easy to measure.

It sure is a stupid system, but I don't know how one would make it better. Some kind of a national exam won't work: advanced graduate students and assistant professors should be adding to human knowledge. An exam can only show what has already become discovered and assimilated to the knowledge base. An exam will thus always be a few years (maybe more) out of date. A board of electors would be nice if they only gave a recommendation that could be added in to the overall application. A really great candidate from an unlikley place, or one whose technical contributions are hard to appreciate outside the field would be advantaged by such a system. But the practical problems in setting one up and keeping it from degenerating into politics are so enormous I'm not sure how one would even go about solving them.


Another Damned Medievalist said...

I think that the departments in Britain are also looking for good fits, at least it seems that way from what I've heard from colleagues there. But the community of medievalists (although pretty big) also seems to be a real community, so that the outside electors also have an idea of "fit." Still, I do worry about it myself, since the questions I've been asked on my specialties have seemed pretty random so far. At my level, it's especially hard, because I am scared to death to be so specific that the committee thinks I won't be able to teach the very broad selection of courses they'll expect me to teach. And in departments that are really big on World history, it almost seems that beign specific about my field dooms me to "won't be able to see the WH picture, because she's such a Europeanist." But I'm not sure trying to walk a middle line helps.

Natalia said...

I think one reason non-medievalists are so "appallingly ignorant" of medieval studies is that there often seems to be a strange tendency for medievalists to clump together and only associate with their own esoteric kind.

I'm not disparaging this impulse at all -- it's partially engendered by the very ignorance you were deploring. But it is true that when I get together with a couple of medievalists, they're soon having fights about class VII strong verbs in Anglo-Saxon or whether Aelfric's prose could count as metrical. In some ways I love it, and it's understandable, since it's what they study, but I can see why it's offputting to people who haven't even heard of Aelfric. It's certainly a conversation they can't enter.

A lot of my non-medievalist friends take the same attitude toward medieval studies that they take toward math: they're glad that somebody in the world does it, but they automatically assume that it's impenetrable, couched in an obscure language. In both cases they'd be wrong, but, weirdly, it sometimes seems like both medievalists and mathematicians actively cultivate this impression. So when medievalists bring up their manuscript studies and Wycliffites and whatnot, the non-medievalists run for the hills. Po-mo reading of Beowulf? Great!, they think. At least they can understand the Foucauldian part -- Beowulf is already disciplinarily off limits, a part of That Medieval Studies Stuff That Isn't Accessible To Me.

I can completely understand how the field might look impenetrable to a postcolonialist, who might then feel that keeping up an acquaintance with medieval studies is not only not a responsibility, but an actual impossibility. This is a Bad Thing, but it's not entirely due to non-medievalist laziness. Maybe I'm overstating the case a bit, but I do think medieval studies sometimes allows itself to be ghettoized a little too easily.

Deep Furrows said...

Don't presume that items on the CV are self evident. If it's a top publication, note it. If you had a great test score, list the percentile alongside the score. If you belonged to an honor society, don't list merely the Greek letters, but qualify it somehow: e.g. honor society of midwest state schools.

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