The best thing about being a recovering academic is that I get to enjoy the holidays again. Sure, this time of year is a stress-soaked junk show for nonacademics, too; just ask anyone who’s taken a December cross-country flight with a barfing 2-year-old (been there!). But for many academics, specifically in the humanities and some social sciences, late December ushers in a special hell.
Months ago, these folks submitted their 90-page custom applications for tenure-track jobs, each element of which is a minefield about which literal books have been written: the meticulously tailored cover letters; the insipid statements of teaching philosophy; the earnest plans for a third, fourth, and fifth imaginary book; reams of teaching evaluations (should be good, but not too good!). And now, at long last, it is time for the people reading the applications—called search committees—to contact those poor souls and schedule first-round interviews. Or, more likely, not to contact them.
Enter, then, a set of the most peculiar websites you have ever seen. They’re the academic jobs wikis, where you can learn everything from when calls for interviews went out, to which positions have been canceled (complete with speculative fiction about why), to when an offer was “made and accepted”—and often (thanks to ISP searches, jealousy, and way too much time) who got it. According to the people who lurk on these wikis (or alternately ignore them with admirable fortitude), they’re “toxic” “cesspools” of spite, lies, “name-calling and pent-up rage.” They cause dread, self-loathing, and even mild PTSD. Though everybody knows what’s on the wikis, nobody knows who started each individual one—they’re collectively (and anonymously) managed. They’re like Tom Riddle’s diary of academic soothsaying.
They’re also completely necessary. Because many academic positions have upward of 500 applicants apiece, university’s search committees—comprised of people for whom poor time-management skills are a mark of scholarly importance—are up to their necks in dossiers. So they have neither the time nor the technological prowess to send timely rejections. Indeed, the normal response to an academic job application is a gaping maw of silence. The prevailing wisdom is that by checking the wikis, at least you can cry into your mom’s snowflake cookies and move on. They are, in a perfectly academic summation, “demoralizing but informative.”
For the rest of us, however, the job wikis are also a fascinating study in academic social and professional behavior under the veil of semi-anonymity, when academics stop being, well, their regular socially maladapted selves, and start getting real. Here, for example, a discussion of a political science job at a school in New Jersey touches on Bridgegate and Bruce Springsteen—with a nice detour into some racism and sizeism—before devolving into good old-fashioned schoolyard name-calling. “NJ=dump,” opines one person with an earned research doctorate. “Your mom=skank,” replies another. (Now, that’s what I call “peer review.”)
Each discipline’s site is its own morass of tension-infused text, and they can be hard to parse for outsiders, but they all basically work the same way, whether in the form of a spreadsheet (political science, fittingly), a terse list (German—need it be said?), or a willfully chaotic magnum opus (English, as if on cue). Users generate lists of open jobs culled from those publicly advertised, with application details and all pertinent deadlines. That’s the part almost all academics agree is useful, and appears in the early fall. The fun stuff comes just in time to ruin Christmukkah.
The first year I was on the market, for example, I remember excusing myself for the 15th time from the secular Schuman festivities, the actual sound of rushing blood in my ears, the fully clichéd cold sweat dotting my brow as I loaded, and reloaded, the German Jobs Wiki. No “movement” on a position I’d applied for—i.e. no updates underneath it—meant my dreams would live another day. Eventually, though, the positions would start to “move,” with other candidates listing their progress applying for certain jobs.
Writing sample requested 12/5 x15.
MLA interview scheduled x10.
Hope in the world, an infinite amount of hope, JUST NOT FOR YOU, SCHUMAN! x5.
The sound of your loser heart atrophying in your chest x5000.
When I emailed my adviser to suggest that his hyperbolic letters of recommendation were for naught, he gave me the virtual equivalent of a smack across the brow. Stay away from those Wikis for the love of all that is holy, he warned. My other professors agreed. “They’re unreliable,” one insisted, meaning that people allegedly made stuff up on them for the sole purpose of psyching each other out. “Committees just haven’t made all of their calls yet,” another chimed in. “You never know.”
Except you do. Or, at any rate, I did. That year, the wikis were right. Nobody called, nobody wrote, nobody so much as acknowledged an application. The only confirmation the jobs existed in the first place was that a bunch of other people seemed to be getting them x20. It’s true that the German wiki, in that deep, frigid winter of 2009—the year I came face-to-face with my academic mediocrity—ripped me to pieces. It’s also true that I needed to face that mediocrity, the sooner the better, so that I could move on with my life.
If you can squint past the “talk” pages full of gossip and, yes, sometimes spite, the wikis are actually performing a crucial and admirable public service, making uncertain rejection certain, refusing to allow deluded people to remain deluded. What makes them unpleasant (albeit necessary) isn’t the service they provide, or even the occasional sniping—it’s the bizarre, imagined universe that academics like me, thanks to stress and desperation, fabricated around “MLA interview scheduled x15.” Suddenly, every one of those 15 lucky bastards was a smug sadist parading his or her (very moderate) success in my face, reveling in my failure, dancing on the grave of my DOA career. In reality, these people did not, of course, know me from Adam, probably weren’t sadists, and besides that they were doing me a favor, letting me know that I should stop waiting outside a door that was never going to let me in.
Misery vortices of self-centered paranoia like the ones the wikis trigger are, alas, the academic job-seeker’s default state: Those who avoid it are made of stronger (or at any rate different) stuff than most, or at least than I was. But it’s precisely the culture of misery vortex and self-centered paranoia that makes the wikis so fearsome. It’s not that they deliver bad news or provide a forum for unfettered sniping—because at least the bad news, as unwelcome as it may be, helps people salvage what’s left of their holiday festivities. No, the wikis are terrifying because they both feed and reflect the worst of academic culture: the fear (and its inverse, when you’re anonymous), the jealousy, the bizarre combination of self-centeredness and self-loathing.
So maybe the reason it’s so depressing to read the academic job wikis—even when, like me, you’ve been off that job market for four years and live a perfectly happy and reasonably solvent life despite this failure—is that the prize for winning one of these jobs is to get mired in that culture forever.