The Other Side of the Mailbox

Jonathan Bellman

I enjoyed Phil’s recent post about being on the academic job market, and the comments it engendered. My own experience is different, and I have never missed job-hunting or being in that liminal state or cogitating on the myriad possibilities of the future: I loathed being buffeted and disrespected by a process that seemed stacked against me at all times. Now that I am on the other side of the mailbox—the gaping maw possibility, so to speak—and have chaired searches, it seems a good time to reflect on the very different perspective it provides.
Reading files is always a sobering process. Any large pool of applicants cannot fail to have some real wrong numbers in it, people who decide “Oh, well, why not apply anyway, who knows what they want, or (worse) people who are explicitly counseled this way. Call me old school, analog in a digital world or whatever, but it really helps if the applicant is a good match for the position. It goes without saying that in a wide variety of situations, palpable desperation is not a desirable characteristic. It follows that a newly minted Master of Music in Percussion might well wonder how his or her application to a doctorate-only musicology position will look. Similarly, a probably-retired person with a long record of musical accomplishment on the school and community performance levels should reflect on how beneficial a chatty four-page single-spaced application letter for a heavy-duty academic-type position will actually be. (Satirical, but not by much, example: “Why should you hire someone like me? True, accordion and Turkish shawm are not high on the list of your august institution’s needs, or so you might assume. Allow me to explain. My philosophy of music, ever since my youthful experiences in Grandfather’s chant choir in Kziixlwwstan, has always been…”)
[Those of you gearing up to get offended: save it. This is not lordly disdain of the less-fortunate people who need employment. There was very real discrimination on my (early 1990s) job market and the scars from that circumstance are, for me, psychologically permanent. I was told openly, “Well, maybe if you had a different last name…” which I took not to be anti-Semitic but rather indicative of Affirmative Action, because the search chair continued apologetically, “we’re hearing a lot about that nowadays…” I was once told that I didn’t make a short list for a musicology position because I had too much piano on my CV—“No, your publications were great, but our piano department is weak and we didn’t want to have to share you, so…” My doctoral institution probably scared off some—“Look where he’s from; he’ll never want to stay here”—and my DMA degree damned me with others—“Never mind where he’s from; he’s a DMA! That’s the wrong degree!” And this is excluding my previous life as a ballet pianist, where straight males were really persona non grata oddities and that counted against me. So I do know a little about discrimination and the harsh realities of the job search, and am entitled to a bit of frustration with people who either cannot actually read job listings or assume that the committee will not have read them themselves.]
The sense of responsibility in reading application files is tremendous. Because one is judging human beings (hopes, aspirations, etc.) on the basis of their paperwork, the necessity of reading between the lines—always an inexact science—is pressing. It is every bit as pressing as your necessity of making the right decision in presenting yourself to me: is it worth risking a little joke, or ironic remark? Are all your accomplishments so important that you should allow your application letter to be more than a page? No right answer on this one; maybe they are, particularly if the position lists a wide variety of responsibilities. What is the correct balance between putting your best foot forward and sounding just a tad too shrill and insistent? Search committee members have to read with a cold, analytical, but also humane eye, but we’ve never been trained to so.
Is the applicant really interested in coming here or is s/he interested in negotiating a better salary, or just landing a “first job”? My belief is that you should never apply to an institution where you’re unwilling to live for any length of time, for the simple reason that you have no way of knowing if you’ll ever get another interview, if you’ll meet someone and decide to settle, if the professional opportunities a school provides might make it disadvantageous to return to where you really thought “home” was, etc. You are also cheating the institution of good-faith long-range planning if you’re looking to move up as soon as you arrive. If you take the gig and the salary, be a grown-up and contribute rather than constantly jockeying. Searches are not time- and expense-neutral processes; the people involved make a major commitment to them, all for the betterment of their institution, and so deserve not to be jerked around.
It is a high-stakes business, and for the institutional Body looking for a new Vital Organ it is no less high-stakes than for the Organ looking for blood flow and sustenance. These are the things I always tell myself as I wearily pick up another file: best game on, Bellman, mind sharp, brain focused. This may be The One!
So understand: there is trepidation on this side of the mailbox too. You seal your application with a “here goes nothing” sigh and prayer; I open each new file with a sense of risk, and real gravity. I’m quite happy where I am, and need to help find people who will be happy here also. Unfortunately, that’s not a measurable question.
Strength and clear judgment to all of us!

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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15 Responses to The Other Side of the Mailbox

  1. Anon says:

    Bellman, you _chose_ to get a DMA and then look for musicology jobs, so some of your scarring is not exactly the fault of those institutions who interviewed you. You’re a white guy. You may well tell us all to stow it, but until you’ve been turned down for a position because “you might get pregnant and not come back,” or because “we hired the minority guy last year and now we don’t need any more” then I think a little more compassion is in order. Let’s not forget also that you got hired and have stayed at the same place, seemingly happily, forever. Not everyone has that experience; I might have loved the location at my first job, but if the administration, politics or environment was otherwise impeding my success as a scholar or teacher, I would be a fool not to go back on the market.
    Your blog always makes me think; I don’t always think that activity occurs when you write it.

  2. Jonathan says:

    The piano-to-musicology migration was, actually, more gradual and complicated than this. My happiness at my present position was likewise much more gradual; this wasn’t a tenure-track slot when I came here, the administration was different, I was made to feel insecure in certain ways, etc. It has evolved into something better and better for me, and us, over time, which is a possibility too often left unconsidered. (And, true, it shouldn’t be banked on either.)
    I don’t believe I told anyone to stow it in that blog. What I’m talking about is the…if not desperation, at least the real seriousness that reading myriad files requires, and the necessity from the institution’s perspective of making as right a call as possible. I also offered those examples of my own experiences on the job market to illustrate that, yes, I do know what I’m talking about when I acknowledge that applicants are often tossed from a pool for unfair reasons. If you think the DMA one doesn’t wash, fine–all the other ones do. And, as an African-American friend put it to me once, whether I’m “white” or not, in the multiplicity of meanings of that word, depends on who you’re talking to.
    Your final comment is probably true. Not true in this case, though: I have given a lot of though to the necessity of making the right hiring decisions, and the various factors leading to those decisions. No responsible individual would want to impede someone else’s progress as a scholar or teacher, but my charge on a search committee would be to try to find the person whose progress as a scholar and teacher would best flourish—HERE.

  3. Alice Clark says:

    I’m going to go ahead and make my first post here, with some trepidation, as someone who survived four years of full-time library employment followed by four years of one-year jobs before getting my first (and only) tenure-track post.
    One thing that has struck me vividly over the years, through the “old” vs. “new” musicology battles, through the trials and tribulations of the job market, and into my own recently-tenured state, is the extent to which we *all* seem to feel marginalized or threatened, more or less, at one time or another, and often for very different reasons. That says something, surely, about the state of our field, and of academia in general.
    Jonathan can point to difficulties he’s had on the job market (and perhaps beyond) as a white man, or as a pianist-scholar; I can point to difficulties I’ve had as a white woman, or as a medievalist; others will have their own stories. The thing is, they’re all quite likely true, and they’re certainly real enough to us to have shaped our own experiences, including how we respond to others where we were, or are.
    Having seen it, like Jonathan, from both sides now, I have to agree with him that the hiring unit has to consider first and foremost what its needs are: I may have a candidate who does absolutely terrific work on New Orleans hip-hop, say, but unless that person will also be not only capable of teaching the history survey and courses like Orchestral Literature to a bunch of undergraduates but happy doing so, I’ve got to give that person my best wishes and move on. Of course, that hip-hop scholar may well be suited to the kind of teaching I need–but it’s part of the applicant’s job to demonstrate that to be the case.
    Of course, hiring committees don’t always fully know what they want, and even candidates may not be completely aware of where they’d be happy. Many of us apply widely, I think, not only out of desperation and because we think the committee may not know what it wants, but because we’re willing to consider a wide range of possibilities for the next stage of our lives, and that’s fair, as long as we really are willing to try the life we’re applying to live. I have a feeling I wasn’t considered for some jobs because someone assumed a Princeton medievalist wouldn’t stay in (for instance) a generalist job at a school without a musicology program, but here I am, and, on the whole, after all these years, despite Katrina, the post-Katrina mess (on campus and off), and everything else, I’m inclined to want to stay. I’m not sure I would have expected that–I’m sure most of my teachers wouldn’t have–and I know some of my classmates wouldn’t feel the same way.
    It’s a painful system, but I do think the vast majority of us–search committee members, candidates, and those who alternate between the two–are doing the best we can.
    Hang in there, everyone–and happy Mardi Gras!

  4. Les says:

    Your anti affirmative action stance is lame. I’m about to drop you from my blog role. Try dealing with a lifetime of being discouraged from your academic pursuits because of your race or sex and maybe we can talk.

  5. Jonathan says:

    I’m sorry you feel that way, but you can’t expect acceptance of a particular kind of discrimination, on a ya-gotta-understan’ basis, from someone who suffered from it. Was I discouraged from pursuing my studies? No, not at all. When I was in the teeth of it, though, none of my advisors could even bring themselves to acknowledge that such discrimination could even occur, because that would have called the world as they knew it into question. I found it a pretty damned lonely place to be, and I have no intention of looking the other way or keeping silent about it now. You’ll note I am not denying the existence or seriousness of any of the other kinds of discrimination, either; I am talking about the kind I know about personally.

  6. Sator Arepo says:

    I am finishing up a PhD in Theory and am dreading entering the job market. Terminal Degrees are clearly being issued at about three times the pace that academic jobs are opening up. Your musings are helpful to me; however I wonder why one would not apply to that first job just to get a job? What is the shelf life of a scholar who has not landed a job at all? A few years? As much as I do not want to teach at Central Bumfuck State Community College, doesn’t that do more for me personal resume than keeping my side job at the Wine Shop or whatever?
    Anyway. Like the blog. Keep it up.

  7. Eric says:

    I teach at Central Bumfuck State Community College, and it’s great. Don’t let these fucking snobs belittle ‘where’ you teach: it’s about the insights and enthusiasm one bring to class, the dedication to music, and all that stuff. It’s about a LIFE in music, not academic bragging-rights at some bullshit academic conference. I think these ‘researchers’ miss that point too often.

  8. Phil Ford says:

    Eric —
    Who are you talking about? I don’t remember anyone belittling any particular kind of teaching institution. I think Jonathan’s point was that we shouldn’t waste everyone’s time by applying to places we don’t intend to take seriously. On the applicant’s end, it seems to me that the main thing is to find a place that respects you and where you can do satisfying, fitting work. From that point of view you’d be a lot worse off at an exploitative, abusive institution that underwrites big research than at a community college where you live a good life and make a contribution.

  9. Sator Arepo says:

    My point was not that teaching at Central Bumfuck State Community College is not/cannot be a spectacularly rewarding enterprise.
    My contention is that the Author maintains that one should not apply to a post that one is not necessarily willing to see through for the good of the department.
    See? My desperation to land a job, any job, after completing (finally) my degree probably undermines my loyalty to whatever institution is willing to take a flyer on me for a one-year post. Why should my loyalties to the first school to take me on supersede my desire to get a good job? A crappy job is better than no job at all, but chances are that they have as little or less loyalty to a one-year post professor as I do to the institution.
    The whole thing makes me depressed. I’m thinking about tanking the whole thing and opening a Wine Shop.
    Not before I get my degree, though. Fuck that noise.

  10. Phil Ford says:

    Don’t get too depressed. I would disagree with Jonathan a little bit, actually, because the fact is that none of us are privy to the future. You can’t know up front if a hiring institution is going to treat you right (although you can pick up on certain clues); you can’t know if they’ll turn you one-year appointment into a tenure-track one; you can’t know if they’ll give you tenure; and you can’t know that you’ll choose stay there. When I got a job at the University of Texas I was extremely happy and excited and counted on being there for good — bought a house and everything. And I stayed 2 years before moving to Indiana. And although I felt bad about leaving UT so soon, I don’t think I was doing what Jonathan advises us not to, which is to take a job insincerely. Things just turned out the way they did, and I made a decision based on a bunch of things that turned out to be important — IU is where I wanted to be, I wanted to live closer to family, my daughter had health problems from living in Central Texas, etc. Who knew? I sure didn’t when I took the UT job.
    I understand your quandary — a crap job is better than no job, and given how hard it is to get *any* job, can’t we just take what we get and, if necessary, use it as a stepping-stone? My feeling is, absolutely you can. You can’t know how a job might turn out. The “crap job” might turn out to be a peach. The “dream job” might be a nightmare. You have to be willing to adjust to facts on the ground. It sucks for hiring institutions that their workforce is mobile and unpredictable, but that’s just tough luck. Lots of things about our systems of academic employment suck, and given that, there’s no reason why any individual should act in anything other than self-interest. It’s hard enough out there.
    My advice:
    1. be optimistic, because being dark and pessimistic will kill you. Seriously — kill you. I should write a post about my Dad some day. He gave into the darkness and it killed him, literally.
    2. whatever job you get, don’t phone it in. If it’s not the place you thought you’d end up, act like it is and do your best work.
    3. if it turns out it sucks and they don’t appreciate you, they don’t deserve you and you should look to get out.
    Really, Kenny Rogers said it best: You got to know when to hold em, know when to fold em, know when to walk away and know when to run.

  11. Jonathan says:

    Phil has it exactly right. I had two year-to-years at a liberal arts college in the south, and while I killed myself there and was very bitter that a tenure-track job didn’t miraculously appear, THAT was the gig(s) that enabled me to Be A Musicologist rather than a full-time pianist, which is what the first year had been. Further, my current job did not look so great when i got here–year-to-year contract, various other issues. I still gave it everything I has–while applying elsewhere–and it gradually became something much, much better. My son’s trumpet teacher always says “wherever you are–BE THERE,” and the greater message may be no more than that: DON’T phone anything in, and do your very best to respect wherever you are. My liberal upbringing and worldview remind me constantly that students *everywhere*, including your Central Indelicate Construct U, are human and deserve instruction and help. Wherever you go, you may well surprise yourself when you find what you really enjoy doing, what some of your skills really are, and–I say this with no self-consciousness–what you were put here to do. (Alice Clark’s post, above, is very instructive in this regard.) In taking a job, you are not promising ‘Til Death Do Us Part, but honor and integrity mean you do your best when you’re there and don’t tell snide jokes behind the U’s back.
    And Rückert said best what we’re all saying: “You must not become tangled up with the night in yourself.” I don’t like to think of what I put Debbie through those last two bitter years of the publications, successes, and the phone not ringing at all. (I hear about my mood enough as it is!) Phil’s advice about the darkness cannot be more true. Cherish hope, celebrate the small victories and successes, and work for the light you yourself will make dawn.

  12. Sator Arepo says:

    Thanks both of you for your kind words and advice. Interestingly enough, Dr. Ford, I was down the hallway from you last year–hilarious. (I did not know you were “our” Phil Ford.) UT is a fine institution, but I am about sick of taking classes now. But still glad not to be on the market, yet. I am encouraged that one of my colleagues just got a (tenure track!) job at University of Redlands as a composer at the tender age of 28. So, there is hope!
    Thanks again for y’all’s advice and encouragement.

  13. Winifred says:

    Thanks again for this post, and the comments. Jonathan (if I may) brought up the question of “happiness.” This came up earlier in the day for me as well. I am going to my second ever on-campus interview for a tenure-track job, and two mentors have said that this school wants someone who would be happy teaching the course load.
    Who are these people who get Ph.D.s in Musicology and aren’t happy teaching Western Music to bright undergraduates? How do I communicate that I will be happy, other than saying it over and over? (I suspect that this might have lost me 2 VAPs last year, despite the fact that I was very detailed about what I love about teaching, why I wanted to teach XYZ, how it fit into my long term goals, why the location excited me, how my experience had prepared me.) The fact of the matter is that I’ve never come across as a happy person–nor as a grump–and no amount of mock interviewing has seemed to help. I have been less and less honest in interviews (lies of omission only, thank you), because it seems like admitting any sort of apprehension is a sign of weakness. (WAS: “I was a little worried about the 4/4 load, but since it’s only 4-5 preps a year I know I can handle it. I’ve already taught X, and most of Y as it is.” IS: “I can handle a 4/4 teaching load, no problem, especially since the preps are reasonable. In fact, I’ve already taught 1/2 the classes.”)
    Finally, I think Jonathan’s gripes about Affirmative Action are legitimate, especially in the context of “a lot of applications are horrible fits.” (Why do you think its gotten better?) However, I’m about to go on my fourth job interview in my third trimester and it’s a whole different kind of terrifying. No one has mentioned it, ever, of course. And, of course, I can’t fly after the end of the month, which might take me out of the running for several jobs, if I get that far. I’m posting this last paragraph mainly because I want someone, somewhere, to tell me what people think of this (in interview situations).

  14. eba says:

    It’s a jungle out there. Stick to it, young musicologists, don’t give up. Not yet, at least.
    Remember, the next step is to try to ‘get happy’ in a cubicle in corporate America. And once you take that step, it seems there’s no getting out….
    Perspective? I’ll be ‘celebrating’ my 20th anniversary in the Fortune 100 later this year.

  15. observer says:

    Jonathan, Ya gotta let go of this 20-year-old idea with which you’ve tortured yourself (and those of us who know you) that somehow YOU were a victim of affirmative action. The market is tough and unfair, and, frankly, your story demonstrates more how hard work and persistence might lead to a happy ending rather than demonstrating some specific kind of discrimination. Unfortunately your views on this matter imply that every woman, gay, black, whatever, or categories of your own imagining, had an easy (or easier) time at your (white male) expense, and, moreover, if we’ve (counting myself in your very large “other”) haven’t had a successful experience then we must really be stupid, incompetent, lazy, etc. It’s insulting.
    Alice Clark states the situation with great honesty, and I applaud her for putting her name to her post. I have made the point (that your self-focused analysis of the horrible job market is insulting) to you in face-to-face conversation in the past, and (so far) you just don’t get it…I’m even quite certain you’ve never “heard” me. Can’t we just chalk the whole thing up to bad demograpics…baby boomers hitting the job market just when baby busters (aka GenY) hit college in small numbers…and market inefficiencies? You would be a better colleague if you did let go of this. Perhaps the multiplicity of voices accumulating here will help. Here’s hoping!

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