Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Older White Christian Guy Attempts to Find Job in (mostly) American Higher Education

I’ve got a BA from a leading American university (Duke), a MDiv from a leading Evangelical graduate school (Gordon-Conwell), and a PhD from a leading British university (Cambridge).  I’ve got 13 years’ experience teaching in Ethiopian and Kenyan universities and graduate schools.  And I’ve been attempting to find a teaching job at an American institution of higher education for more than two years.  I’ve applied for positions in my area of training (Early Modern British history) and in my area of recent teaching experience (intellectual history, history of Christianity, Christian theology).  I’ve applied to every position that seemed plausible, whether university positions, college positions or even community college positions. Here are my results thus far:

Community college in CA – No thank you.
University in northern VA – No thank you.
University in Georgia – No thank you.
Community college in AZ – No thank you.
University in Kazakhstan – No thank you.
University in NY – No thanks.
University in VA – No thanks.
University in NC – Nope.
Another university in NC – Nope.
College in MA - No thanks.
Another university in MA – No.
University in Alaska – No, no, no.
University in SC – No.
College in SC – No.
Another university in VA – Nope.
Community college in FL – Nope.
University in the UK – No.
College in OH – No thanks.
College in PA – Nope
Community college in VA – No.
University in MD – No.
Community college in TX – No.
College in TX – No.
College in WV – No thank you.

And these are the ones who have had the courtesy to send me a form rejection letter.  There are just as many who have advertised positions to which I have applied but from whom I have heard nothing.

I have read that there are 100 or more applications for many of these positions.  I’ve also read that graduate schools have been unconscionably churning out PhDs without regard to what those PhD-endowed people might actually do with themselves once they leave their program.  I wonder how many other PhD-holders are like me, working at the equivalent of the YMCA as the front desk guy for a salary marginally better than minimum wage while I wait to see if I get to use the academic skills I honed in graduate school and the teaching skills I honed in multicultural contexts in Africa?  Presently I am honing other skills, like phone answering, locker room cleaning and floor mopping.  Not everyone, it seems, is interested in the delights of 17th century British history or in the fascinations afforded by the contrasts in Western and Eastern theologies.

So, it’s tough for American academics without a job or even a foot in the door.  Just like it’s tough for those who have made it in the house but whose life is consumed by the realities of ‘publish or perish.’

Even so, American higher education is a different world than it was a generation or so ago.  Perspectives on race have changed dramatically.  Perspectives on gender have changed dramatically.  Those who piously lament that the change has been too slow and or not enough do not appreciate from whence our culture has come.  But ‘the system’ has always been such that someone with a contribution to make has been left out.  Higher education fads are always exhilarating for those who have caught the wave, and they always seem so right at the time.  But these fads have almost always seemed to pit one group against another; someone is always on the inside and someone is always on the outside; someone is always a winner and someone is always a loser.  The only thing that seems to change is who wears the designation of ‘loser’.  And as someone who is (currently) among those deemed on the wrong side, on the outside, among the losers, not the right age, or the right color, or the right gender, the experience is not pleasant.

Too bad those in positions to change the system are not interested in doing so.  For those on the inside, it is always easier to look down on those who, for whatever accident of birth, history or opportunity, simply weren’t deemed worthy enough to make it.  And yes, whites have done it to blacks, men have done it to women, English have done it to Irish, Kikuyu have done it to Luo, etc., etc., ad nauseum.  But for whatever reason, in every single case, being the recipient of discrimination (and even persecution) is often used as justification for visiting the same on the former persecutors if and when the tables are finally turned.  In Kenya, it is called ‘our turn at the table’; or, the spoils of graft and corruption may now be distributed amongst our people for a change, with no sense whatsoever that the fundamental corruption that lays at the heart of the whole system should in any way be addressed and fixed instead.  One might call it the Golden Rule of the Way Things Are Really Done: ‘Do unto others as they have done unto you.’

People in positions of authority and/or who are on the inside are allergic to any hint of accusation that they may have possibly done anything wrong or may be party to anything untoward.  We live in an unhappy age of litigation.  So I will say nothing about anyone.  Only to observe, just as generations before me have experienced and to a much greater extent than I have, as long as there are people involved, injustice is woven into the fabric of whatever we do.  As is racism.  As is sexism.  As is ageism.  One can find these things in every corner of the planet, festering in every single culture.  We, in my corner of the planet and in my culture, have done well to recognize that some groups have been the recipient of very unfair treatment.  And it could very well be that were there a genuinely ‘level playing field’ I might be rejected by just as many if not more college professor search committees.  I have to be willing to admit that there just might be people, women or men, Black, Hispanic, Native American or Asian American, younger or older, who are better qualified than I am who really should be chosen to fill the various positions to which I also have applied.  Having conceded these things, I am still left with the feeling that the correction for certain of our sins, in North American academia at least, may have missed the necessary point, and that someone who is 55, or who is a man, or who is white, or who is a practicing Christian, or, heaven forbid is all four in the same person, is simply wasting his time applying for any of these jobs, because we don’t serve those types here.  The public side of all these job announcements and processes are, of course, all made with plausible deniability stamped all over them.  And it could be just me.  But having been at this for a while, my gut tells me it may be otherwise.  I, of all people, would love to be better informed and proven wrong here.