Phil Ford

Throughout the thrice-excellent seafaring novels of Patrick O’Brian, there is an expression the main protagonists, Aubrey and Maturin, commonly use to express their curiosity: “I am with child to know.” And we sometimes say that pregnant women are “expecting.” There is something about the state of carrying life (potential life, at any rate) within one that lends itself as a metaphor for intense curiosity about, and eager anticipation of, the future.

There is no anticipation more eager than a young academic waiting to hear back from the academic departments to which they have applied for jobs. Those of you who are unfamiliar with the ins and outs of academic job searches should know that the fall is the usual time for departments to publish notices of job vacancies, usually specifying some sort of academic specialty (18th century music, American music, etc.). Those who are on the job market find out what they can about the departments that are hiring in their specialty, prepare c.v.’s and letters of application, hit up their elders for letters of recommendation, and so on. At some time from fall through winter, the applicant will be shunted along through a series of department decisions. The hiring department first meets and works out a “long list,” a few candidates (maybe 10-12) who stand out as especially promising and well-suited to the job, and asks for further materials. These typically include published research, chapters of dissertations, teaching materials, statements of research or teaching philosophy, or other, more dubious things. After reviewing these materials, the department decides on the “short list”: three (rarely four) candidates to fly out for a campus interview, during which the candidate will meet with the department, present a public lecture based on his or her research, teach a guest class (usually), meet a dean or two, maybe meet some students, etc.

I mention all this because this is the time when letters are flying thick and fast between applicants and departments, and those on the job market try to figure out what’s going on in the minds of the institutions to which they’ve applied. This process has gotten a lot more transparent lately, thanks to the academic jobs wiki. (Ryan Banagale’s post on this topic is a must-read for anyone on the market.) But it’s still a fraught process — when you send out your c.v. you hope to kindle a spark, and (assuming you actually want the job, which is probably a safe assumption) you bend all your thoughts on keeping it going, hoping it bursts into flame. Or (to switch to the pregnancy metaphor) your candidacy  is like a little life you carry around, in your head rather than in your belly, but you carry it with you all the same, and carry the same intense expectancy. You worry it will all just end, that you will stop getting emails from the hiring department, that the spark will fail, that your little embryonic future life — the life you hope to live wherever the college is, the life you are now spending every spare moment envisioning —  will die.

Maybe this is a bad metaphor, and maybe I don’t really know what I’m saying — I never carried a child myself, obviously. But I’m trying to get at something of just how emotionally intense these early weeks of the new year can be for young academics. It’s not just a job — it’s a whole vision of your future life. Academia, unlike many lines of work, doesn’t let you say “I really like [City X]. I’m going to move there and look for a job.” It’s more like the army: you go where there’s a post for you to fill. You might find yourself in a place you never heard of before, much less aspired to live there. So if you get invited to send further materials to, say, Manhattan, Kansas, you immediately ask yourself, what would it be like to live there? And if you get closer — you get a campus interview, you actually get to see the place and see what kinds of students you’ll be teaching and what the expectations of teaching and publication are — you ask, what will my life be like here? How will this reflect back on everything that’s led up to this moment? What will change? It’s practically impossible not to think in these terms, and it is emotionally draining, because when you don’t get the campus interview (which happens to everyone), that little future version of you has just been snuffed out of existence. All the emotional energy that went into creating that future just . . . vanishes. It’s depressing not to get a job, obviously, but it’s also strangely deflating, too.

But then, if you do get the call, such a surge of emotion! Your world changes. You set about learning everything you can about the job that suddenly might be yours; you get your materials together, you think about how best to present yourself, you get a new tie, you talk to all your friends, you talk constantly with you spouse or S.O. about it, trying somehow to peer around the corner between now and the future. You are with child to know how it will all turn out. You are caught between elation and hope and apprehension and anxiety. And you are in a funny relationship to time: everything is now directed towards the future, so you are not really in the present, but then again, nothing really has happened yet, either. You’re in a transitional or liminal state.

I just came back from a trip to the park with my son, a budding natural historian who likes to muck around in the creek bed and look for critters. I kind of half-watched him from the adjacent playground, warming myself in the wintery sun and reading Karol Berger’s recent article in the Journal of Musicology. And I was overhearing a young woman telling some friends — obviously all young Ph.D.’s or grad students — about how her husband just got long-listed at Vassar. She was in that liminal state, you could just tell — you could hear it in her voice, excited and apprehensive and expectant. And I felt strangely nostalgic all of a sudden. I realized that this is the first year since 2001 that I haven’t been scuffling for some job or other. This time last year I was completely caught up in preparing to interview here at IU. And I look back at that time, and all the other times before it, when I was waiting, waiting, and realize that there’s actually something kind of beautiful about that in-between state. It’s not a terribly easy state to remain in, but while you’re in it you live a life of possibilities. It’s a time when it is your professional obligation to take a step back from your life and reflect on it. You visualize the paths that led you here and the paths that fork away from you; you imagine alternate realities, alternate versions of you, that might actually be born. It’s freaky, but it’s also kind of beautiful. There aren’t many times in life when you look out to the far horizon so intensely. Most of the time, we’re staring at what’s six inches from our noses.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
This entry was posted in Academia, Labor, Life. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Expectancy

  1. Nice post, but I think you’re a little out of your league when you suggest most people move a to city they like, then look for employment. Unless you’re an artist or musician or freelance journalist or in some other line of work that doesn’t an office, chances are pretty good you already have a job lined up when you move to different city.

  2. Peter Alexander says:

    This is so beautifully written — I really love this post, and I am going to recommend it to anyone who will listen. How well put. RIght now my wife & I are in a liminal state as we prepare to buy the house in Colorado that we will retire into. It’s nothing like the the state that you are nostalgic for, when you have so much of your life spread out before you, but in a way it is. It may be the last closing of doors from the many paths that are possible to the one you take. Gradually, the potential of many lives narrows down to the one you live.
    It reminds me of the last line (I think) of “Sunday in the Park with George”: “White. A blank page or canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities.”

  3. Phil Ford says:

    Hey Peter —
    Really glad you liked the post. Your own thoughts are beautiful and poetic. “It may be the last closing of doors from the many paths that are possible to the one you take. Gradually, the potential of many lives narrows down to the one you live.” I wonder if much of what is called “lateness” in art flows from this awareness.
    Hey Marc — didn’t mean to imply that everyone outside of academia can choose to live wherever he/she wants. Some jobs allow greater mobility than others. Nonetheless, I know a lot of people who have ended up where they are by saying “screw it, I’m moving to Seattle” or whatever, and then finding work. This was my plan B if I didn’t get an academic job. Might as well live somewhere you like.

  4. peter Alexander says:

    I hadn’t thought about that as I wrote it, but yes, that may be true. That, and the realization that “Tutto nel mundo è burla.”

  5. peter Alexander says:

    Oops! That was supposed to start with your line: ‘I wonder if much of what is called “lateness” in art flows from this awareness.’
    I hadn’t though about that . . . etc.

  6. Leah says:

    Hi. I stumbled upon your blog from my friend James’
    I am in this “in-between state” with my grad school search right now. It’s nice to know that a. I am not the only one and b. this is not a permanent state.
    Thank you for the thoughtful post 🙂

  7. Catalyst says:

    Wow. I thoroughly enjoyed this post. Particularly the concept of the alternate versions of life being created and snuffed out with the changing opportunities. Very poignant and very true. I think there can be different kinds of circumstances in life that produce the same effect.
    I’m a long-time reader and fan of yours, but I’ve always remained a lurker. Until now, I guess. Thank you for all the thoughts, insights, and perspectives that you share here. Dial M is always one of my favourite reads.

  8. Charles Carson says:

    And beautifully put, to boot.

Comments are closed.