Jobs of the MLA

Sat Jan 10, 2015

The Current Situation

Around last year at this time, I became interested in what the archived editions of the MLA Job Information List could tell us about how the profession has changed over time. The MLA provided page-scans of all the JILs going back to 1965, and Jim Ridolfo used commercial OCR software to make them searchable. Once the documents were searchable, finding the first occurrence of various key words and graphing their frequency over time became feasible. One detail that became clear to me as I read each single issue of the JIL was that the formats differed enough to make graphs of relative frequencies somewhat misleading. Some of the editions are three times the size of others, and even normalizing over years doesn’t necessarily help here. So this image, for example, of the relative frequency of “shakespeare” in the JIL, needs additional interpretation:

Screen Shot 2014-01-28 at 6.56.19 PM

The editions of the early 1970s are up to three times as large as those of previous years, so the vast apparent decline is mostly an artifact of the changing format. I know this is not an especially novel or exciting observation, but I mention it to show some of the difficulties with charting keywords. The absolute number of mentions doesn’t account for years with twice as many ads as others, and the relative number has other difficulties.

The ideal solution would be to build a database of all the actual job advertisements. A completely automated solution to this doesn’t seem quite possible, given the formatting variations and the OCR error rate, which is higher with the more faded print of the earlier scans. (If I had actually been able to give this talk, I certainly would have asked the MLA staff if they had taken any steps in this direction. It’s quite possible that they have.)

In order to get a better feel for the scans and try to devise some strategy for building an automated database from them, I decided that I would read all the ads from a variety of editions. Once I started reading the early ones, however, it became difficult to stop:

There were specializations and assurances unlikely to be seen in recent years:

Most of the ads until the first real crunch of the early 1970s listed salary ranges. Adjusted for inflation, these were sometimes higher than salaries would be now.

I doubt that U Mass offers Associate Professors of English over 100K to start now. I haven’t checked to see if their salaries are publicly available, but there was a controversial Associate-level unhire in 2014 at a comparable research institution whose starting salary was about 20K less than this. The highest salary that I saw offered was from Staten Island Community College with an upper range for a full professor that would be close to 200K today. The cost-of-living issues obviously affected this then as they do now, but the key point is that after the job market crash of the early 1970s, salaries, when they appear, have clearly not kept pace with inflation.

In addition to the salaries, the most noticeable difference between ads of the late 60s and early 70s and those of today is informality of tone combined with many instances of overt sexism:

Or this opportunity to be the “senior man”:

This advice appeared throughout the mid-late 1960s:

By 1970, efforts were being made to address overt discrimination:

But it took a while to settle in:

The Crisis

By the early 1970s, the job market had collapsed. The MLA had also changed the format of the Job Information List. Rather than only institutions that had openings listing them, all member institutions were queried. The chairs often took this opportunity to complain testily about the imposition and about the related phenomenon of being besieged from letters from job-seekers even though they had not advertised any positions.

Here is one illustrative example:

And another:

A good resentful example:

I wondered if this eventuality wasn’t so unexpected after all:

Before long, chairs began to take advantage of the national venue to express their creativity:

With somewhat Kinbotian whimsy:



Pastiche, Shakespearean

And Biblical:

Political satire:

Political, otherwise (alt-ac opportunity):

Classical allusion:

And, finally, litotes:

The topicality of this panel listing from 1974 impressed me:

Two-year college chairs also weighed in:

Future Directions

Andrew Pilsch mentioned to me on twitter that a database of job listings would be good and all, but what would be really cool is to know who got the jobs. I can’t imagine any way to automate such a procedure, though I think it might be somewhat feasible for very recent years. I have found various ads that I know from graduate school or rumor who the hire was; but a comprehensive database is hard to imagine. Lingua Franca used to publish a list of who got hired where, and I believe that some people in philosophy have been tracking this fairly diligently over the last decade or so. The privacy issues associated with such a database are also problematic, I think.

What could be reconstructed fairly easily is the history of any given department’s particular job listings over the years. In general, the more elite the institution, the less specific the ad. As far as I can tell, the typical Harvard or Yale job ad has changed very little since the early 1970s, for instance. When which departments decided they needed to make African-American or feminist studies, for example, a priority is relatively easy to chart. What this information would add to disciplinary history as opposed to local departmental history is not wholly clear, but I remain optimistic that there’s more to learn.

If you’re interested in seeing more amusing or revealing job ads from the 1965-1977 period, please see my twitter feed.