The Rules and the Job Market
In part, this is because I'm hearing stories about the deceptive things some people will do in order to improve their chances on the job market. But mostly it's because some very similar rhetorical and ethical strategies are deployed in the advice offered by The Rules and in some of the advice job seekers seem to be getting.
For example, as with The Rules's prescriptions for "looking the part" during the dating process, many academic job seekers get confusing and apparently contradictory fashion advice when they're prepping for interviews. They hear that they need to dress conservatively but not stuffily while also pleasing both fashionistas and fuddy duddies. Even worse (and also very much in line with The Rules's ethos), there often are some bizarrely retrograde and invasive elements to these prescriptions. But a certain percentage of job candidates seem prepared to take that advice, even if they feel it's wildly at odds with the image they wish to convey and their idea of the profession as they hope to practice it.
Let's face it: it's a crap shoot out there. And when the job market is as bad as it has been in academia for decades now, some of us understandably freak out and start looking for the sartorial equivalent of four-leaf clovers in our quest to embody the Archetypal Academic. But, folks, none of us is the Archetypal Academic.
To which I say "Thank God." Because the Archetypal Academic is a terrible bore, and nobody wants to work with or learn from him. In fact, I'd wager that plenty a search committee member has been dismayed by the attempts of too many job candidates to project a personality which is both as inoffensive and as charismatic as a head of cabbage.
One of the more disturbing trends in the interview advice getting bandied about is that advice to women and minority candidates tends to be aimed at either counteracting or highlighting their supposed biological eccentricities so as to mollify anyone who might be put off by them. Hence women being urged to leave wedding or engagement rings at home, wear pearls, and avoid pantsuits while minority candidates are being instructed to dress like a bad parody of Secret Service agents in order to seem less "threatening" to those who might view them as potential dissidents. (Y'all may think I'm making this up, but I promise I'm not.) One of my friends was told she needed to dress particularly conservatively because she would already seem "edgy" to some committee members simply because she's not Caucasian and she's a woman.
I call bullshit.
Do we really want to work with and for people so primed to dislike us on the basis of who we are that we must do some complicated sartorial supplication ceremony in an attempt to please them?
Do we truly want to step into the role of performing said supplication ceremonies, or do we intend to maintain some shred of personal identity and (dare I say it) dignity?
We are talking about a job interview here, not a pole dance. We are not walking into interviewing rooms to fulfill people's fantasies, and we are particularly not there to fulfill the fantasies of jerks who can't deal with job candidates having families or a high melanin count or a particular accent or background or what-the-hell-ever. We are there to present our best work, to answer questions thoughtfully and honestly, and to discover whether we are a good fit for the institution doing the hiring.
Dressing like a professional (which is not the same thing as dressing with no imagination or individuality) for a job interview is a good idea. But using clothes and jewelry as props to help you pretend to be someone you're not in a job interview is a very bad idea. What happens when you show up after getting hired with the family in tow, dressing entirely differently, chain smoking, riding a Harley, or generally not being a good imitation of the Archetypal Academic? Won't the people who hired you feel snookered? Do you really want to give your colleagues a reason to distrust you, right off the bat?
And, by the way, will you like working with the people you fooled into thinking you approached their Platonic ideal? Have you spent so much time transforming yourself into someone else that you forgot to pay attention to who they are? Because, you know, these people could be your co-workers for decades to come, so that sorta matters a little.
Why should people even be considering hiding their families as though they're ashamed of their loved ones for being a professional liability? Or doing everything possible to present themselves as being thoroughly assimilated and meek in order to avoid provoking The (Boogey)Man? That is not okay, people.
Yes, it's hard to get a job in academia now, and all of us on the lower rungs of the ladder are pretty scared and desperate. I'm not even on the market yet, and I've been terrified for years. But, the way I look at it, getting the job is one thing, and living with the job you got--and with what you did to get it--is another.