change · emotional labour · job market · positive thoughts as I fill out applications

What’s "fit" got to do with it?

Every now and then I scroll through the archives of Hook & Eye to see what we were talking about last year, two years ago, and yes, as far back as four years ago. Much has changed, much has stayed the same. I have been writing about mentorship, precarity, and contract work since we started this blog in 2010, for example, and as I read through some of my own earlier posts I am struck by the ways in which my temerity has remained constant. There are still so many things that feel risky to talk about in a frank manner. My years on the job market (which number more than my years blogging publicly here) have not made me bolder. In some ways, I have become increasingly aware of the risks of speaking publicly about a bruised and broken system. And yet. And yet, it is a system that has, until this year, for the most part paid me a living wage. It is a system that has, until this year, in many ways validated my work–most often in the classroom. And so, as another fall semester winds down, and I find myself looking through the archives thinking about change, one of the things I notice are the little absences. The things that have slipped out of conversations without so much as a quiet shutting of the door.

An example: four years ago this month I wrote a post on the moving imperative. A friend has suggested I write about the implicit need to move for one’s degrees. This struck me as interesting and, frankly, at the time it seemed easy. I’d moved for all my degrees, and I had just moved across the country for a ten-month contract. If moving was imperative, then my track record was solid. So I wrote about it with interest, but with little understanding of the experience of someone who was either not free to move or, much more difficult for me to understand, unwilling to move for reasons of community, of family history, of filiation with the lands on which they were living.

I was, I think, living with a rather neoliberal mentality: highly mobile, no ties to place. Is that a good thing? It is for the job market, in the short term, I suppose. But in the long term I suspect hyper-mobility–as a mentality, at least–erodes connection to place. For examples of connection to place I think, for example, of the Land Protectors fighting to save Burnaby Mountain right now, of the anti-frackingblockades of last fall in Elsipogtog, of the EnPipeline project. Is moving for a job directly connected to unsustainability at the levels of environment and of community? It depends. But I offer this shift in my own thinking as an example of a topic we don’t much talk about in the search for stable work in higher education.

Let me shift gears again and point to another topic that seems to have quietly vanished from conversation. It is a genuine, deeply earnest, and somewhat uncomfortable question for me to ask: does the question of fit come into play anymore? More specifically, does the question of fit come into play for the candidate and not just for the committee?

Here is where this thinking stems from: I’ve been writing reference letters for potential graduate students in the last few weeks. I have also been writing reference letters for applicants to tenure-track positions. And, I have been writing my own applications to jobs. Also, it is fall. All of these things put me into a nostalgic mood and have me thinking back to the advice I got when I first entered the job market, as well as the advice I have given to people applying for school or work. When I was first applying for work my mentors put me through all my paces. Practice interviews? Check. Instruction on how to write a job letter? Check. Read the hiring institution’s website, collective agreement, departmental philosophy, and strategic mission statements? Check, check, check, check. I was taught how to dress (that’s changed somewhat), how to answer questions, and I have learned how to be myself in an interview too. But people also always used to tell me and my cohort that fit works both ways. Obviously, the hiring in department is looking for you to fit (and there are scores of good article like this one reminding you how to make yourself fit), but I haven’t heard any applicant talk about whether or not a department is the right one for them. Not for a long, long time. In fact, I think the only post we have ever had about fit was a post from the wonderful Lindy Ledohowski. She wrote about having the right departmental fit, but no agency in advocating for a spousal hire for her partner. Beyond Lindy’s post, I can’t find any talking about the candidate looking for, thinking about, or of being allowed to admit to caring about departmental fit.

I don’t think it is necessary to rehearse why “fit” has slipped out of conversations, at least where the applicant is concerned. The market is bad and it feels as though it is getting worse all the time. Departments are fighting to keep courses on the books as retirements aren’t replaced and more and more classes are covered by sessional and contract faculty–many of whom don’t qualify for benefits. We know this. And yet. Sometimes, as I try to think hopeful thoughts while filling out job applications, I do think about fit. I think about me, the applicant, a person with a life that extends (as one hopes it would) beyond the institution where I work. I think about people I know who have jobs and hate where they are. I think of people in those same places who don’t have jobs but stay in that pale because they have made lives. And I worry. I worry for myself, of course, but I also worry for the institutions we work in, the education systems we’re fighting to better, and the people it takes to make them better. Somehow, somewhere, I think “fit” needs to reenter the conversation.

Maybe this post could just as easily have been titled “what’s love got to do with it?”

But of course I feel compelled to end the post by saying this is hypothetical. This topic is like the other risky things that precarious workers can’t really talk about without wondering if its the thing that lost them the interview. If you’re a potential employer reading this post you can bet your boots I’ll be willing to consider moving just about anywhere for the opportunity to work in your institution.

2 thoughts on “What’s "fit" got to do with it?

  1. Erin,
    Thank you for this post. I think a lot about limits–my limits–in regards to what I will and will not do for an academic post. I must think about limits because I have young children. Like everyone, I have personal circumstances and complicated reasons for my limits; however, I have realized that it is really important to understand precisely what my limits are and how I define/set them. I wonder too how other academics set limits on what they will and will not do for a post–what will in a holistic fashion make their life and work practical and beautiful to them (and their family and/or community) and what will they refuse to do in the name of loss or oppositions such as well-being, love, daily living, economy, community, time, space, and continuity of work–what is possible and impossible? I think these are significant questions especially in our seemingly (I am hesitant to not recognize present-future) very precarious, dystopic moment of no-future-no time. The pressing question for me remains: What am I willing to give and trade for a job? What are my precarious and sedimented attachments? My bonds? What are they worth to me? How am I valued in the place I reside and this future place? What will a new, future place provide in terms of sustenance? Possibility? Living? Peace? Trust and Bonds? Renewal? These are very serious questions for me. I have two sons to raise. I need continuous work. I enjoy my work. I like to work a lot. However, I do feel that I must be strict and honest with myself in terms of what I will allow my children's lives and my own life to become, what I will let in to the time, space and shape of their living, of their daily lives… if I relocate somewhere that is more or less suitable for them in a variety of ways or un/suitable for me, what do I concede? What will be the loss? gain? It is always hard to know. I must weigh carefully my affinity to certain kinds of spaces, communities, and ways of living because these facets can either sustain or (attempt to) destroy me. I know where I likely fit, but, this knowledge can be difficult to convey to others–perceptions and recognitions are always construed, fashioned, and often without the right kind of questions asked or conversations held. This said, I know what I will give up and what I will not let go of for academic work and for renewal–and I think this is a good intellectual, emotional, and physical space to in/habit.

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  2. Erin,
    I think you are spot-on with this post, as always. Fit has disappeared from the candidate side of the discussion because everyone is desperate, as if no sacrifice could be too great for a sacred TT job. The discourse these days is that we should all be grateful for any steady academic work at all, no matter how miserable we might be once doing it, and especially if it's on the tenure-track. I was a bit surprised to go back to the post on the moving imperative and re-read the comments I left there 4 years ago. 4 years later I still feel the same way. The only difference is now that I've got my book under my belt and my tenure vote has gone down and should be officially conferred by the end of this academic year, it's time to put my money where my mouth was then (and still is now) about calling it quits. I believed then, and I believe more strongly now, that not all sacrifices are worth it, especially if landing a TT job means spending the next 30 years somewhere one will be miserable. After all, a TT job is still just that, a job. I'm now at the stage of trying to envision ways to maintain some of my career without a TT job, and I think it's important to maintain the distinction between job and career. I, and I suspect you too, already do my research on nights and weekends for which I'm not paid, on top of teaching and service and everything else. Would it really be that different to continue to do research during long, solitary, unpaid hours without a university affiliation after my name? Would the years spent building a reputation in the field (yours is very respectable) and the publications we've already published just disappear without a university affiliation after our names? Perhaps one can still have a career without a TT job or without sacrificing oneself, one's life, one's happiness for a job that is a bad fit.

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