Any young philosopher who aspires to an academic career must, especially in these days of fiscal restraint and feminized privilege, include in his plans a trip to the annual American Philosophical Association (APA) Convention, a curious hybrid of frenetic job-hunting and highbrow hobnobbing widely reviled as “the meat market.” Although Pacific and Central Divisions of the APA convene annual meetings, the East Coast gathering is especially crucial, following as it does on the heels of the first significant round of job announcements. The 1994 session was held in Boston at Copley Place, December 27-30.
Arrangements run roughly as follows: philosophy departments with positions to fill advertise in the APA publication, “Jobs for Philosophers,” Young candidates review these positions and apply for those for which they are suitably qualified in the hope that they’ll be interviewed at the convention itself. Their turkey barely digested, they travel to Boston on the 27th, cheek into a pre-booked room, register, and are assigned individual numbered files, located, along with a couple of thousand others, in the so-called Placement Centre. Ordinarily, interviewing institutions will have contacted those candidates whom they intend to interview prior to the conference. However, such arrangements are sometimes made at the conference itself, by means of completed forms placed in the candidate’s numbered file.
It is with a certain giddy anticipation, then, that the young philosopher, Ph.D. in pocket, first approaches his file. Will he launch his career in Vermont or Arizona? Will he wow them in Lincoln or Poughkeepsie, Ann Arbor or South Bend? Only too soon will this conjuring of options strike him as fatuous. And, as each visit to the Placement Centre turns up not even so much as a nibble of interest, his giddy anticipation gloomily turns to wishful thinking and sickening swells of self-doubt.
The APA Convention serves the important purpose of ensuring that candidates and department representatives are together in one place for a period of several days so that the arduous and expensive job of interviewing can be handled with relative dispatch. In other respects, however, it constitutes a gruesome spectacle—worthy, I thought, as I boarded the Boston Express out of Portland, Maine, of some surreptitious notetaking.
December 27th, afternoon: I arrive in Boston by noon or so at the Greyhound terminal near South Station. I ask directions of a young man, and he points me in the right direction. I am carrying a heavy rucksack with a makeshift plastic garment bag that protects a suit I bought a year ago, mainly with job interviews in mind. I have yet to wear it, but am confident I will be breaking it in here in Boston.
My friend Emmitt, who is teaching in Kansas, has booked a room under both our names at one of the hotels in Copley Place, the site of the conference. Emmitt will be here both to be interviewed and to conduct interviews on behalf of his department. Therefore, his expenses will be paid by his university, including the room that I will share with him. Since I am broke, this is a great help. Without an ally like Emmitt, the APA would prove all the more daunting.
By 3:00 P.M., Emmitt arrives by taxi from Logan Airport. I have not seen him since an evening three years ago at a friend’s room in Christ College, Cambridge, when he returned from Kansas for a visit with his wife, Hannah, and their newborn baby girl. He looks well, slimmer than I remember him. While he changes and freshens up, I pace the room, stopping occasionally to gaze from our 24th-floor window at the Boston skyline. We compare notes on matters both personal and professional.
I wrote my doctoral thesis on aesthetics, a rich and challenging, but sadly neglected, subdiscipline of philosophy. This makes aesthetics my “area of specialty,” or “AOS,” in APA-speak, even though there is much else that I have studied, taught, and that commands my interest. Of all the positions advertised throughout the United States and Canada, only two are looking for a young scholar with such a background.
Or so I thought. Emmitt tells me that he has heard that one of these positions has fallen through, funding having been denied. “As for the other,” he adds, “I hear they’re actually looking for someone with a degree in fine arts who has dabbled in philosophy.” The second university, apparently, has close ties to some ceramic institute, I momentarily picture a ponytailed potter-cum-philosopher earnestly declaring to a roomful of undergraduates, “You become the clay!”
“So they want a philosopher who’ll be gracious enough not to trouble his students with philosophy,” I say. “It seems,” Emmitt replies. This does not augur well. I have applied for another 20 positions or so, but none of them stipulated a preferred AOS. Instead, the positions were declared “open,” which means that competition will be especially intense.
December 27th, evening: Having preregistered, Emmitt and I collect our name tags and conference programs and head over to the Placement Centre in the Westin Hotel. This is only a scouting expedition, to get the lay of the land, to anticipate tomorrow’s movements. On the back of our name tags is stamped a number that corresponds to individual manila file folders reserved for us at the Placement Centre. We both find our files empty, but, as yet, this is no concern. As is indicated by the mere handful of pink slips pinned to a large bulletin hoard, representatives from most of the universities that will be conducting interviews have vet to arrive. They will be doing so later tonight or tomorrow. Unlike Emmitt, I have no prearranged interviews. But since I was visiting England during the two-week period when recruiting departments were phoning candidates, I assume, as docs Emmitt, that those who are interested in talking to me w ill simply contact me here by leaving a note in mv file.
After a bottle of Pete’s Wicked Ale at a bar on Boylston Street, I return to my room and watch a preview of holiday bowl games on ESPN, the last half of “NYPD Blue,” and the local news. My head is pounding. I scribble a postcard to my girlfriend in England. The prospects of her joining me in North America, at least in the foreseeable future, depend in large part on my fortunes here. At this stage, I figure, no news is good news.
December 28th, morning: We get our wake-up call at 7:30 A.M., stretch, wash, and dress, then head out for breakfast. As we stand around waiting for the elevator, Emmitt, a veteran of these conferences, tells me that if my file in the Placement Centre has no requests for interviews in it by late this afternoon, my prospects don’t look good. It sounds ominous and almost callously matter-of-fact, but I appreciate his seasoned assessment. For the first time, I feel vaguely despondent. “God,” I wheeze absently to Emmitt, “I wonder if I’ll attract any notice at all.” A moment passes before we look at each other and chuckle. Inadvertently, my remark has at once captured and caricatured the nature of the relationship between desperate job-seeker and disdainfully persnickety institution, as if the one were a tart by the roadside, showing a bit of leg to the other, hoping to hitchhike her way to tenure-track bliss.
After breakfast in the hotel restaurant, we leave for the Placement Centre. It’s 11:00 A.M., when the APA is at its most hideous. Anxious, milling academics, tired of life in Lubbock, Dubuque, or Kalamazoo, frustrated by years of taxing doctoral work and thankless part-time lecturing, check their numbered files with damp, fretting fingers, their roving eyes comparing fortunes. Like me.
“Nothing in mine,” says Emmitt.
Nor mine, I find.
I check the message board, now full of pink slips. All have a check next to the line, “prearranged interviews only.” Emmitt has one such interview with a Midwest college. I shake his hand and wish him good luck.
Although the possibility remains that I’ll be contacted later in the day, I am not hopeful. And however much I prepared myself for the possibility of having no interviews, I cannot help but feel disappointed. Since this is also the APA at its most voyeuristic, I tell myself not to give too much away, not to appear too flustered, not to gulp too dryly, not to avoid making eve contact too unnaturally. After all, I tell myself, it’s a ferociously competitive market. Times arc tough, political shenanigans abound. It’s not me.
Still, what am I going to do? Like all the other luckless ones, I make a sort of stammering retreat, trying pitifully to maintain an air of defiant pride as I make my way back out into the crowded foyer and down the escalator.
December 28th, early afternoon: In a chair by the window, I sit morosely pondering. A cleaning lady arrives. She is a Salvadoran named Rosa who, though a resident in the United States for five years, has trouble with English. After a moment or two of tortured conversation, I leave to take in the Publishers’ Exhibit on the third floor. Wandering from bookstall to bookstall will provide solace, I figure. Here, I can forget about all the ignored applications, unrequited interest, and phantom interviews.
I collect catalogues at the display booths of various university presses, lingering in particular at Penn State and Cornell. At the latter, I half hope that the press rep will approach me, sensing a sale. I imagine casually mentioning to him that two of my friends have recently published books with Cornell and are prominently featured in their glossy catalogue, to which he replies snidely, “Hey, that almost makes you famous.” But he doesn’t approach and I’m relieved.
At the Hackett booth, the press rep asks if he can be of service. I ask him the price of one of the displayed books. He says, “$12.95 ordinarily, but only 59.50 at the professional rate.” I find this mildly reassuring. I am, in spite of everything, a pro.
December 28th, mid-afternoon: At 3:15 P.M., it’s time to return to the Placement Centre. I approach file #213. Still nothing. I can’t get over it, although I’m not quite sure what it is that I can’t get over: the lack of response to mv applications or my naively having expected any response at all. Self-consciously, I head back out as quickly as I came in. A gaggle of crumpled tweed and designer stubble huddles in earnest conversation while others scribble information from notes posted on a large bulletin board before racing headlong back to their files. This contrast between near-masonic etiquette and creeping anxiety is curious. One might say symptomatic.
At the top of the escalator, I notice the familiar face of Ray, another friend from Cambridge. W’e have not seen each other since he lent me his chilly flat on Portugal Place while he went off to do research in Germany. Handsome in his shirt, tie, and brown tweed jacket, he seems flustered. He has an interview, he says, with a small teaching college in Michigan. Since he has yet to register, I walk back with him to the registration desk on the fourth floor of the Marriott. We agree to meet near the hotel restaurant at 5:00 P.M. and grab a coffee. But when he shows up he looks shattered.
“Horrible,” he says in a parched monotone. “They spent most of the time telling me how ugly the campus is, how congested the area is, how big my classes would be, how bad the students arc, and how little they pay.” Rather absently, he introduces me to a woman named Phoebe who has a sabbatical-replacement appointment in Winnipeg. She asks me, “Any luck?” I say, “Not at all. Not a single interview. How ’bout you?”
“Five,” she answers brightly.
I have always been told that applicants do extremely well at the APA if they get two or three interviews. Eyebrows raised, I grudgingly reply, “That’s something,” before adding, more generously, “Good for vou.”
“This isn’t for me,” Ray laments, his eves fixed on some indistinct point on the mezzanine wall. “You know,” he says, addressing me more firmly, “I’ve been thinking of leaving this behind completely. Maybe teach at a private school or something.”
“Yeah,” I reply, unsurprised, having thought similar thoughts.
December 28th, evening: Back in the room, Emmitt tells me he will be meeting a couple of department mates for supper at the Atlantic Fish Company on Boylston and invites me along. I’d love to, but decline. I have friends to visit.
Warren completed his doctoral work at Cambridge a couple of years before mc and recently published an expanded version of his thesis with Oxford University Press, lie is spending the current year as a research fellow at some Harvard institute, living with his wife and children in Somerville. It will be good to see them.
Their apartment is small, ugly, overheated, and expensive. Warren, Milly, and I eat and catch up with one another. Warren enjoys Boston and the institute to which he is attached, but is amazed at the poor pay. Milly, who doesn’t care for big cities as a rule, feels a bit isolated and misses her job in England, but she is not unhappy. They have just had their second child, a girl, who lies sleeping in a crib. Warren says he will apply for whatever jobs are available at North American universities while they are here. But there are few openings in his discipline, so they expect to return to Britain by early summer.
We are all tired, so at 10:00 P.M. I get up to leave. Warren takes the elevator down with me to the cramped lobby. We shake hands and offer each other parting words of encouragement. Wc wonder where our paths will next converge.
It is breezy but mild as I walk back to the subway station. Red Line, Green Line, out at Copley Square. Back in the hotel room, I turn on ESPN. Emmitt turns u|3 an hour later with a bottle of bourbon. He never developed a taste for this stuff, but I accept a glass, on the rocks. He shares with me a conversation that he had earlier in the evening with a woman it the AFA Smoker. Noting that of the 11 candidates shortlisted for a position at her respected New York college, seven were women, she concluded with smug triumph, “I can’t see this job going to a man.”
Emmitt and I conservatively estimate that women candidates are outnumbered here by four or five to one. “Seven out of eleven,” I repeat groggily, and report to him the happy debut of Phoebe from Winnipeg. I take a stiff swig of bourbon and spend the next few minutes wetly convulsing.
December 29th, morning: After waking and washing, Emmitt and I say goodbye. He is off for the first of two days of conducting interviews of candidates for a philosophy of science position at his university in Kansas. By the time he gets back, I’ll begone.
I phone Greyhound to get departure times for the Boston-Portland bus. All along I’d been planning on taking the last bus tonight or an early one tomorrow. Now is the time, however, to bring mv affairs here to a marginally dignified close. I decide on the 4:00 P.M. bus. I scribble two postcards to my girlfriend, one of the Quincy Market in winter, the other a summer sunset in Boston Harbor. We were both hoping for big things in Boston. She’ll be as disappointed as I am.
At about noon, the phone rings. It’s Gold, who held a sessional appointment in the same department where I’d taught part-time the previous year. We arrange to meet for lunch. Half an hour later, we’re together in the Westin working our way through bowls of buttery clam chowder. He appears to have done reasonably well here, delivering a paper and being interviewed for two philosophy jobs in the Southwest.
In mid-gulp, I spot a familiar face whose eves catch mine just in time. It’s Vincent, a friend from Montreal and Cambridge. Having finished his doctorate and, more recently, a research fellowship at Jesus College, he is eager to return to North America. So far, he’s been turned down for interviews everywhere, except for one this afternoon with Maryland. We update one another about mutual friends in Vancouver and Halifax. Then he’s on his way.
Gord kindly offers to drive mc to the bus station, so I retrieve my belongings from my room and meet him down at the semicircular drive outside the Westin. At the Greyhound terminal near South Station, we say goodbye. The bus driver allows the passengers on early, which is a blessing. It must be 20 degrees with the windchill. I ride back to Portland in the falling dark.
January 2, 1995: A dark morning 111 southern Maine. Heavy snow. After morning coffee, I return to my basement bedroom to sort through old boxes. After the snow stops, I join Dad and Ron in shoveling the driveway and the mailman’s path. The late afternoon sky is a smoky coral tinged with scarlet. Inside, toes frozen, we have tea, watch a Simpson rerun, and sit down to cabbage rolls for supper.
At 9:00 P.M., I’m listening to a musty old album by Eric Andersen when Carol Ann calls and invites me to watch a movie on PBS. It’s called The Music of Chance, starring James Spader and Mandy Patinkin. Spader plays Jim, a sleazy, loping cardsharp, while Patinkin plays a stalwart fellow named Nash, a man of patience, humor, and culture. After a chance meeting, they find themselves playing high-stakes poker with a pair of wealthy eccentrics. Confident in his virtuosity, Jim is mortified when, playing for himself and Nash, he loses everything, including Nash’s ear. In a panicky effort to recoup their losses, he manages only to fall deeply into debt, to the tune of $10,000. In order to repay the money, they strike a deal with their hosts, agreeing to build a stone wall across an empty field on their estate.
A few weeks into the labor, Jim, tired, indignant, and humiliated, proposes that he and Nash make a run for it. But Nash calmly shrugs. A deal’s a deal. He’s lost everything, he explains. He and Jim took a chance and it didn’t pay off. But things could be worse. And the wall is already half-finished. In the meantime, they must make the best of the situation. You pays your nickels, you takes your choice. One door closes so another will open.